Cuban Gonzalez makes debut as Phillies fall to Braves

Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman is safe at second with a double as Phillies second baseman Chase Utley applies the late tag in the fifth inning on Wednesday, Sept. 3, 2014, in Atlanta. (John Bazemore/AP)

ATLANTA - The conversation on the mound Wednesday lasted longer than usual. Ryne Sandberg asked Phillies catcher Wil Nieves about his strategy with Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez.

"Stay back," Nieves said. "He was rushing."

Sandberg nodded, said something that Nieves translated to the Cuban righthander, and then patted Gonzalez on the back.

A 7-4 loss to the Braves deviated from the Phillies' recent brand of sterling baseball. But the wins and losses mean little now; this is a time to gain insight on the possible pieces for next season. Gonzalez, after one major-league outing, is no less of an unknown.

He faced eight batters in his debut. Five reached base. He fooled some Braves hitters and overpowered others, but missed with too many pitches. Atlanta dinged him for two runs. Afterward, Sandberg issued one conclusion: "He's come a long way since spring training."

Two other rookie pitchers endured worse days. Gonzalez replaced lefthander Mario Hollands, whose left elbow felt sore after 17 pitches. David Buchanan started for the first time at Turner Field, just 30 miles from his Peachtree City, Ga., home. He threw four innings and could not command the ball. His ERA dipped to 3.95 because of three unearned runs after a fielding error by Chase Utley.

The Phillies paid Gonzalez, who turns 28 in three weeks, almost $7 million before he appeared in a big-league game. He will make $2.5 million in each of the next two seasons, and expectations have diminished. General manager Ruben Amaro Jr. last summer deemed Gonzalez a mid-rotation starter. A horrendous spring marred by shoulder and elbow trouble forced Gonzalez to the bullpen.

"I'm confident," Gonzalez said through a translator before Wednesday's game. "The Phillies made the decision to make me a reliever to see if I could get healthy and confident again. The decision to be a starter, it's up to them. Whatever they decide."

Does he have a preference?

"I just like baseball," Gonzalez said.

But can his arm sustain a bigger workload?

"I feel strong," Gonzalez said. "I feel if I start next year, I'll be fine."

Gonzalez showcased his entire repertoire Wednesday, and revealed an arsenal large enough to vary his approach. He started Jason Heyward with three change-ups, a pitch he did not throw in the fifth. Then he spotted a curveball on the outer edge that Heyward skied to left. Andrelton Simmons, the next hitter, saw all fastballs, including one at 96 m.p.h.

There were two outs in the sixth, and that is when Gonzalez reminded everyone he is far from a finished product.

He overthrew three straight fastballs to Freddie Freeman that sailed high. Freeman walked. Ryan Doumit singled on a curveball. Tommy La Stella lashed a fastball to right for a run-scoring single. That is when Sandberg took the ball from Gonzalez.

"A few pitches he threw down had good life to it," Sandberg said.

"He was just rushing a little bit - you know, first outing, a little bit nervous and jumpy," Nieves said. "But he made some good pitches when he stayed back. . . . I told him, 'Don't worry, first outing; relax next time and just do what you do.' "

Both Amaro and Gonzalez could not say what the pitcher's winter plans are. He could become a starter again in winter ball, given the Phillies' many rotation vacancies.

"He's pitching very well as a bullpen guy, but it's still a possibility that he's going to start for us," Amaro said. "We'll talk about it at the end of the year, discuss it with him, and go from there. I know that when we signed him, he had great interest in being a starter and a starter only. That may have changed for him, but we will do what's best for the organization."

For the moment, Gonzalez arrived and the circumstances were irrelevant to him.

"It's amazing," he said. "It's a dream come true."