Chi Chi Gonzalez probably didn’t envision when he made his professional debut for the Spokane Indians in 2013 that he’d be pitching in a potential division-clinching game at Avista Stadium in 2018.
Yet, as a result of Tommy John surgery in July of 2017, that’s exactly what happened as the parent club Texas Rangers assigned him to their short-season Class A affiliate for a rehab start on Sunday.
And as fate would allow, it was a potential division-clinching game for the local team.
No one – player, parent club or affiliate – could have asked for anything more. Literally.
Gonzalez tossed five perfect innings, Isaias Quiroz homered and the Indians clinched the Northwest League North Division second-half title with a 3-1 win over the Vancouver Canadians on Sunday at Avista Stadium.
The Indians will start a three-game division series against Everett, the first-half champ, on Wednesday in Everett.
Game 2 will be at Avista Stadium on Thursday at 6:30 p.m. Game 3, if necessary, will be at Avista at 1 p.m. on Friday.
“Winning is always fun,” Quiroz said. “From the beginning of the season the Rangers preach it: Win. That’s what we all strive to do.”
“Time to celebrate,” manager Kenny Holmberg said. “We’re going to enjoy this together tonight and we’re going to show up tomorrow and be ready to play some more baseball.”
Gonzalez allowed no runs, hits, walks or errors and struck out four over five innings. He threw 50 pitches, 35 for strikes, and induced nine ground outs opposed to one fly out.
“It was fun,” Gonzalez said. “We had a great defense. Everybody made plays. It was good with the strike zone. ‘Q’ (Quiroz) was calling a great game. We hit the ball well.
“That’s all you can ask for. Good playoff game.”
Holmberg was impressed.
“(Gonzalez) goes out, he throws strikes, he reads hitter’s swings,” he said. “And he makes adjustments. He did a great job today. And you know what, he pitched. He made his pitches and did a great job.”
“He did an outstanding job” Quiroz said. “We couldn’t ask for anything more having Chi Chi here. He’s a big-leaguer for a reason.
“He was locked in today.”
The righty sat at 90-92 mph with his fastball, hitting 93 on occasion, and used all his pitches.
Gonzalez said he came out of the rehab start with no physical issues and he expects to stay with Spokane through the playoffs.
“In my mindset (on his rehab) it was just another game,” Gonzalez said. “But yeah, there was more at stake, more on the line.”
Gonzalez, 26, was the Rangers’ first-round pick, No. 23 overall, in the 2013 MLB Draft. He spent parts of the 2015 and 2016 seasons with the Rangers before suffering a UCL tear during spring training in 2017.
Gonzalez made two appearances for the Rangers’ rookie-level Arizona League affiliate last week, tossing a total of five innings. He allowed no runs, two hits and no walks with four strikeouts.
Gonzalez was sharp from the start. He delivered his first pitch – an 89 mph fastball – for a strike, then induced a pair of grounders and fly out for a 1-2-3 inning in which he threw just five pitches – all strikes.
He picked up a pair of strikeouts in both the second and fourth innings as he faced the minimum to that point.
The Indians got him some runs in the bottom of the fourth. With one down, Diosbel Arias singled on a liner to center and Sherten Apostel followed with a hard single back up the box and into center.
Tanner Gardner’s looper to short right plated Arias and put runners on the corners. Garner then stole second.
The Canadians brought the infield in and Starling Joseph’s hard grounder was fielded by shortstop Jesus Serverino. His throw home beat Apostel, but catcher Yorman Rodriguez couldn’t handle it.
The Indians attempted a delayed steal of home but Gardner was thrown out, then Joseph ran into an out trying to go from second to third on a grounder to the left side.
Gonzalez got three straight ground outs to short in the fifth to preserve his perfect start.
Quiroz led off the fifth with a homer down the left-field line, his third of the season, to make it 3-0.
“Our offense has been rolling,” Quiroz said. “I was just trying to put a good at bat together to get on base and luckily it went out.”
Francisco Villegas did his part in the sixth with a pair of ground outs to short and a lazy fly ball to left.
The perfect game ended with one down in the seventh when Vancouver’s Tanner Kirwer singled off Wes Robertson. Robertson then walked Griffin Conine to bring up the potential tying run.
Yorman Rodriguez didn’t tie the game, but his flare to right fell in and Kirwer scored to make it 3-1 and put runners at the corners.
It was Roberston’s first earned run allowed at home all season.
A nifty 4-6-3 double play started by Cristian Inoa got the Indians out of any more damage.
Robertson turned in a 1-2-3 eighth and closer Emmanuel Clase pitched a scoreless ninth to record his 12th save and clinch the second-half title.