When he was a young player trying to make his way in the league, Jonny Gomes always had a hunch when his name might be in the lineup.
He just had to look at the other team’s probable starter.
Whenever names such as Randy Johnson, Andy Pettitte, Ted Lilly, Barry Zito, or CC Sabathia were in there — all dominant lefthanders — he figured he’d be the one of the unlucky ones who had to deal with them.
“The everyday veterans, those were the guys they take off,” Gomes said. “They’re like, ‘Oh, wait, this guy’s pitching?’ ”
Then, something funny happened. Gomes wouldn’t just walk into the box as a human sacrifice.
“I’d go in and I’d hit them,” he said.
The first game he ever faced Johnson was June 2005. Johnson was a 41-year-old Yankee then, but he was still on his way to a 17-win, 211-strikeout season.
The first at-bat, Gomes popped up. The second at-bat, Gomes took Johnson deep for a two-run homer.
The more he hit lefties, the more he got a reputation for it.
For his career, he hit .556 against Johnson (5 for 9). He’s hit .357 against Pettitte (10 of 28) with two homers and 9 RBIs.
He understands how hitting lefthanded pitching has become his specialization, but he doesn’t necessarily see it that way.
“They’d go, ‘Oh, you can hit lefties?’ ” he said. “And I’d go, ‘No, I’m just playing. I’m hitting.’ ”
But when the Red Sox signed him to a two-year $10 million contract last November, his .279 lifetime average and 166 RBIs against lefties played into the decision.
“It’s consistent with the reason we signed him,” said Sox manager John Farrell. “We felt like not only his approach and his competitiveness, but his swing fit this ballpark very well, which has played out so far. And he’s gotten quite a few more at-bats against some righthanders inside some given games.”
As they get into the thick of a 10-game stretch against AL East foes, his skills couldn’t be more important.
In a three-game set with the Yankees over the weekend, New York sent Pettitte and Sabathia to the mound.
Gomes went 2 for 4 with two RBIs against Pettitte and 1 for 4 with a homer against Sabathia.
The task doesn’t get any easier against the Rays. Gomes went 0 for 3 against Matt Moore Monday night in the Sox’ 3-0 loss, and Tampa Bay will roll out David Price on Wednesday.
“It’s kind of ironic,” Gomes said. “I’m probably the only guy on the team — or maybe in the league — that gets excited to see Pettitte, Sabathia, Moore, and Price.
“We’re not talking just lefties here. We’re talking guys that have Cy Young votes and Cy Young Awards.”
It’s a niche role, but when he looks at the numbers and sees that four pitchers who finished in the top 10 in the majors in wins last season were lefthanders, he realizes it’s one that teams are looking to fill.
“I played every day in the minors,” he said. “I never knew such a thing. So just by hitting them early, I kind of had success with that. But in reality when you look at the numbers . . . it’s a tough core of lefties right now.”
The approach, Gomes said, is the same no matter who’s on the mound.
“I prepare myself and want to play every day,” he said. “It’s not a demand. But I just think that if you don’t have that mind-set then you will get stuck in a role, you will get stuck in a bench role.
“I do want to play every day. So I don’t accept it. Because if that doesn’t work out then there’s nothing next. It’s not like, ‘Well if you don’t hit lefties, OK, now we’re going to play you every day.’ It’s ‘You’ve got to hit these lefties, then you can get more time.’ ”
He entered Monday night hitting just .234 against lefties and .253 against righties this season. Five of his eight homers had come against lefties.
Over his past 19 games, he’d been especially hot, hitting five homers compared with just three over his first 50 games. He had a hit in each of his previous 11 starts.
“Where he was six weeks ago compared to now, it’s consistent with what he’s on record as saying,” Farrell said. “He’s typically a slow starter that starts to come around and that’s definitely taking place.”
He’s also been as clutch as anyone, with two walkoff homers and a .357 average as a pinch hitter (5 for 14).
The production, he said, is a byproduct of opportunity.
“My role has changed,” he said.
“It’s kind of funny how now, people will talk about how I’m getting some clutch RBIs, some clutch hits. The first two months of the season, I was getting pinch hit for. I wasn’t even in there. I might have been able to get clutch RBIs in, but I didn’t have the opportunity. So opportunity is what has changed.”