The Cleveland Indians have been making a lot of noise lately in the American League wild-card race. The Tribe’s high profile manager, Terry Francona, has given his team a new identity. Slugger Carlos Santana is having another productive season and is surrounded by other veteran leaders. Starting pitcher Ubaldo Jimenez, an ace turned enigma who lost more games than anyone in baseball last season, has suddenly been on a roll the last couple of months. And catcher Yan Gomes, quietly picked up by Cleveland last winter, has flown under the radar to become the Indian’s “secret weapon” going into the stretch run.
Yan Gomes, 26, is the first player from Brazil to ever make it to the show. Born in Sao Paulo, the 6′-2″, 210-pound Gomes led his country in the World Baseball Classic, hitting the lone RBI in Brazil’s decisive, 1-0 victory over home team Panama. But the popular receiver elected not to play in the tournament finals, instead preparing for spring training with his new team. That’s partly because Gomes, although a hero in his native land, has frequently played second fiddle during competition in the United States.
Growing up in Miami, Gomes would attend the University of Tennessee and was a Freshman All-American who played six different positions. But when he ended up as a substitute catcher for J.P. Arencibia, Yan transferred to Barry University back home in Florida. After breaking several of the school’s offensive records in his junior year, Gomes was selected by the Toronto Blue Jays in the 10th round of the 2009 MLB amateur draft. Ironically, though, the Brazilian would be blocked again, this time in Canada, by the Cuban-born Arencibia.
In Cleveland, Gomes was expected to be Santana’s backup. But since early July, Yan has taken charge at the plate and behind the dish, prompting Francona to see things differently.
“What we actually have are two everyday catchers, which is pretty fortunate,” says the articulate skipper. “We try to use that as an advantage.”
Gomes is currently hitting at a .302 clip with 17 doubles and 11 home runs in only 239 plate appearances, most which have come in the second half. As a catcher, Gomes has surprised opposing teams by throwing out over 50 percent of base runners attempting to steal, and he calls an excellent game.
“He’s done terrific back there,” praises Francona. “Yan understands that you have to take ownership of the (pitching) staff.”
Some observers believe it is Gomes who has turned around the career of Jimenez. In his last 10 outings, the Dominican right hander has an ERA of 1.93 with Gomes laying down the signs in most of those starts. In fact, Gomes has caught 63 percent of the innings for Cleveland since August 1, showing he is receiving some deserved respect. And even though Santana isn’t pleased to be mostly serving as a DH, he understands the situation.
“I just want to win, and Yan is having a good year,” agrees Santana. “It helps the team when we’re both in the lineup.”
Gomes, for his part, continues to work hard and tries to let others answer any questions. When pressed, he likes to discuss the promotion of his friend, Andre Rienzo, a rookie pitcher for the Chicago White Sox who is also from Brazil.
“I’m really happy for Andre and hope he sticks around up here,” replies Gomes, although Rienzo got roughed-up by the Indians on Saturday.”I would like to think that kids in Brazil would look up to us and want to play baseball, too.”
Yan Gomes will admit that he’s grateful for an opportunity to prove himself, especially with the possibility of playing next month. Gomes is also proud that soccer legend Pele has recognized his success, and frequently tweets words of encouragement.
“I’m just really excited to be part of this,” beams Yan. “It’s something I’ve always dreamed about.”
And the Indians are happy that Yan Gomes is for real.