Gonzalez and Norfolk came painfully close to a no-hitter, spoiling Chris Archer's career night on the mound as Triple-A Norfolk settled for a combined one-hitter in a 4-0 shutout of the Durham Bulls on Thursday night.
Gonzalez, an Orioles right-hander, pitched five hitless innings and the Tides bullpen came within two outs of a no-hitter. The starter engaged in a pitchers' duel with Archer, Triple-A's top strikeout artist.
"I didn't really think about it," Gonzalez said of the no-hit bid. "I just went out there and tried my best, honestly. I had an idea how I was doing, but I wasn't paying attention to that."
The game featured three veterans with their eyes on Major League comebacks in Hideki Matsui, Miguel Tejada and J.C. Romero. Romero, assigned to Norfolk earlier in the day, ended up making the most impact of the trio when he relieved Gonzalez in the sixth.
Gonzalez struck out four and walked one to pick up his second win while facing off against Archer, the Bulls' ace, who struck out a career-high 12 batters over six frames as Norfolk tried to collect its first no-hitter in three years.
"I was happy with my performance today, can't say much else," Gonzalez said. "It was awesome."
The no-hit bid fell apart in the bottom of the ninth when Tides second baseman Tyler Kelly fumbled a potential double-play grounder and Matt Mangini immediately followed with a clean line-drive single in the right-field gap off Tides closer Jon Link.
Link, with the bases loaded and the tying run at the plate, induced another double-play ball, this time with Kelly getting the job done to seal the combined one-hitter.
"It's not always going to be perfect, no one's perfect in this game," Gonzalez said. "After that happened, we got the out after the hit. Link didn't worry about that, he just went out there and threw strikes, that was it."
Durham, which played the time-honored motivational movie comeback montage in the middle of the ninth, complete with a "Win one for the Gipper" clip, avoided being no-hit for the second time this season -- Justin Wilson and Indianapolis held the Bulls hitless less than a month earlier in Indianapolis' 2-0 win on April 29.
Archer's dozen strikeouts didn't garner him anything but his fifth loss. He was charged with three runs on five hits and two walks, throwing 97 pitches without any run support. The effort, though, moved him atop all other Triple-A pitchers in strikeouts with 61.
"It was great," Gonzalez said. "Great watching him, the great fastball he has, mixing in his pitches. I think he did a great job except for that one inning, but he was doing well."
Norfolk scored three runs in the third when Tejada singled home another veteran, Lew Ford. Joe Mahoney then lined a two-run triple for a 3-0 lead. Ford added his first homer in the ninth.
Gonzalez, who's spent most of the season in the bullpen, made just his third start and retired the first 10 batters of the game before issuing a one-out walk to Mangini in the fourth -- the game was delayed about a half-hour after the bottom of the third inning due to rain, but both starters remained in the game.
Pitching three days shy of his 28th birthday, Gonzalez struck out Henry Wrigley, popped up Jose Lobaton and retired Reid Brignac in the fifth before handing the ball off to Romero, who struck out two in the sixth in his first appearance this season. Eddie Gamboa tossed a pair of scoreless frames before Link pitched the ninth.
Gonzalez said he and the Tides dugout started taking notice of the no-hitter around the seventh.
"Gamboa did a great job as did our two other guys, we played a great game," he said. "Our defense was great and that was it."
It would have been Norfolk's first nine-inning no-hitter since Chris Tillman threw one against Gwinnett on April 28, 2010, the Tides' only nine-inning no-no in franchise history. Former Major Leaguer Steve Trachsel had a seven-inning no-hitter against Ottawa on May 29, 2001, and John Mitchell threw a seven-inning perfect game on June 27, 1988 when the club was known as Tidewater.
Durham remained stifled until the ninth, when Cole Figueroa's walk broke string of 14 in a row retired by three Tides pitchers. Kelly's error -- he dropped the ball while attempting to flip it to shortstop Blake Davis covering second -- was his third error in nine games.
For Gonzalez, the win will be memorable as he aims to make a name for himself as a potential starter for Baltimore. The righty got the chance to join the rotation when Norfolk lost some arms to injuries.
"A couple guys went down, and they told me, 'Would you like to start"' I said, 'Yeah, sure, why not?' I'd never started before, but I was comfortable coming in."
Gonzalez does have some experience starting, though -- he started nine times for between Class A Advanced Salem and Double-A Arkansas in 2007 and 2010 (he was not in the Minors from '08-'09).
"I'd prefer to start, you have that routine, you know what day you're going," he said."
The former Angels prospect credited his catcher, Chris Robinson, in the effort.
"Just concentrated on my pitch, felt great, and Robinson caught a great game," he said. "I went with him, followed whatever he told me to do, and I felt great."
Gonzalez, on a 70-pitch count, said the Tides held Matsui hitless in three at-bats by pitching him outside.
"Gameplan was to pitch him away," Gonzalez said of the 2009 World Series MVP who's attracted over 35 Japanese media members to Durham in this homestand. "That's what we tried to do and it worked out."