LAWRENCEVILLE - At a lanky 6-foot-6, Mariano Gomez could easily pass for a basketball player.
Growing up in Honduras, however, Gomez had to make a career decision between two other sports.
Soccer is a passion in the small, poverty-plagued Central America country, with baseball ranking a distant second in importance.
Gomez picked baseball, though, and he definitely appears to have made the right choice.
The left-hander is one of the mainstays in the Gwinnett Braves bullpen and appears close to realizing his dream of becoming the first player born and raised in Honduras to make the major leagues.
"Mariano's definitely earned a look," Gwinnett manager Dave Brundage said.
"He's got the stuff and the mentality to be in the big leagues right now," G-Braves pitching coach Derek Botelho added.
With three lefties already in the bullpen, Atlanta hasn't made the call yet. But Gomez is being patient. That's the story of his career.
This is the 10th season in the minors for the 26-year-old Gomez and the Braves are his third organization in three years.
"I can't understand how Minnesota let him get away," Botelho said.
Gomez was 5-2 with a 2.76 ERA in 54 games with Rochester last season, but he became a minor league free agent when the Twins didn't put him on their 40-man roster.
When Gomez was offered a contract by Atlanta, he jumped at it. For those who preferred baseball over the more popular soccer, the Braves had been Honduras' team when Gomez was growing up.
"I became a great fan because we watched a lot of games (on TV) when they were winning all their championships," Gomez said. "When the opportunity to sign with them came up, it was my dream.
"I hope I can wear an Atlanta Braves uniform some day. That would be a dream come true."
Gomez pitched for Atlanta bullpen coach Eddie Perez in the Venezuela Winter League and then made a favorable impression during major league spring training, not allowing a run or a hit over five innings in five Grapefruit League outings.
In the Class AAA International League, Gomez has continued to get the better of opposing hitters by pounding the bottom of the strike zone and getting ground ball after ground ball.
"He pitched in a lot of
different roles out of the bullpen and he's done well in all of them," Brundage said of Gomez, who has a low-90s fastball, slider and changeup. "He impressed me last year when we faced him and he's been even better for us. He's fit in outstanding shape."
Gomez (6-3) leads the G-Braves in victories and is a perfect 7-for-7 in save opportunities. He has a 2.08 ERA in 35 appearances and opponents are batting just .199 against him.
Not bad for a former soccer standout who grew up in a country passionate about that sport rather than baseball.
A midfielder, Gomez had uncommon height to go along with speed and a powerful kick.
"I grew up being a soccer player and I had an opportunity to try out for the (16-and-under) national team," Gomez said. "But that was when the baseball scouts were coming around.
"My dad asked me what I wanted to do and I said baseball. I loved baseball and my family was a baseball family. I have a cousin who just signed with the Pittsburgh Pirates. So now there is another Gomez (trying to get to the big leagues)."
This Gomez was signed at age 16 by the Cleveland Indians and began pitching in the minors as an awed 17-year-old in the rookie Appalachian League in 2000 at Burlington, N.C.
Despite the culture shock of coming to the United States, Gomez made steady progress until a finger injury, followed by knee surgery, set him back. He never made it past Class AA with Cleveland before signing with the Twins prior to last season.
Gomez, who works off his slider against left-handed hitters and his biting two-seam fastball against righties, was good at Rochester in his first shot at Class AAA and even better this season with the G-Braves. Some players would let not getting a big league shot yet effect them, but that hasn't been the case with Gomez.
"He hasn't got caught up in that AAA crisis as I call it," Botelho said. "He's not worrying about whether or not he deserves to be in the big leagues rather than down here. He's just going out and getting it done.
"Mariano has done a tremendous job for us. He was a great signing."
Right now, it is the G-Braves who are benefiting. Eventually, it may be the Atlanta Braves. That is what Gomez is hoping for, possibly later this season.
"I am proud of my country. Honduras is my home," Gomez said. "I want to be the first who was born, raised and lives there to play in the major leagues."
SideBar: The Gomez File
Who: Mariano Gomez
Team: Gwinnett Braves
Position: Left-handed relief pitcher
Birthplace: San Pedro Sula, Honduras
Age: Turns 27 on Sept. 12
How acquired by Atlanta: Signed as minor league free agent last fall
Season highlights: Leads G-Braves in wins with a 6-3 record. ... Has a 2.08 ERA in 35 games. ... Opponents are batting just .199 and have hit into nine double plays. ... Is a perfect 7-for-7 in save opportunities.
Background: Signed at age 16 by Cleveland. ... Pitched in Indians organization for eight seasons. ... Signed with Minnesota before last season and appeared in 54 games for Rochester, going 5-2 with a 2.76 ERA.