Yesterday, in the shadow of a brilliant Mt. Rainier, Marco Gonzales made his debut as a member of the Mariners system. Gonzales, traded for top prospect Tyler O’Neill four days ago, went six innings, walking one and striking out five while allowing six hits and three earned runs, although all of those runs came in the sixth, when Gonzales was admittedly fatigued. He would never use that as an excuse, but imagine moving your life cross-country in the span of three days, bookended by appearances as a starting pitcher for two different teams. But the goal-oriented Gonzales isn’t faltering in his focus:
“There’s a ton of competition in St. Louis, and I think that’s something that’s really going to help me going forward, I hope to keep that competitive edge while I’m here and just fight for a spot. Day in and day out over there, I was just doing what I could and just waiting, and I’m going to continue doing that and pitch like I still have something to prove, because I do.”
With Trader Jerry himself watching, the quick-working Gonzales debuted as a Tacoma Rainier in a nine-pitch, nine-strike first inning. Operating on about two hours of sleep and facing a lineup that was 89% right-handed, Gonzales kept the Sacramento bats at bay through five strong innings. He didn’t need more than fifteen pitches per inning until the sixth, where he was taxed with two grindingly long at-bats—the first an 11-pitch at-bat that resulted in a walk; the second, an eight-pitch AB that ended with a fly out. Sacramento was able to string together some hits and get to Gonzales for three runs in the sixth, but very few balls hit off him were hit hard. The main aggressor was noted lefty-murderer and ex-Mariner Justin Ruggiano and, you know, good for him.
Gonzales’s fastball sat at a consistent 91-92 mph; he did hit 93 a couple of times but without the excellent command he displayed early in the game. He was ahead in the count 18 of 25 times, “won” five of six 1-1 counts, and didn’t get to a three-ball count until the sixth. “He’s as advertised,” said Rainiers manager Pat Listach. “He’s a strike-thrower who will work both sides of the plate and isn’t afraid to pitch inside.” After missing a few spots here and there throughout the first five innings, Gonzales’s whirlwind 72 hours finally caught up with him in the sixth, where his pitches started catching too much of the plate.
In St. Louis, Gonzales was rushed to the majors just one year after being drafted by the Cardinals, and several pitches from his starter’s five-pitch arsenal were casualties of that haste as he was shifted to the bullpen down the stretch. But as Rainiers pitching coach Lance Painter noted, “He’s got the pitches to be a starter. He’s got three pitches he can throw for strikes, he moves the ball to both sides of the plate, and he has a feel for what he’s trying to do. It looks like he reads swings well and makes adjustments as he goes along.” Aside from the pitch arsenal, Gonzales also has a starter’s mentality: “In my position,” he said with a wry smile, “I don’t throw 97, so I need to be able to throw any pitch, in any count, to any hitter. That’s something I pride myself on.”
Even though Gonzales has been working on his curve since college, his nontraditional path to MLB derailed the development of that pitch, which he threw sparingly in the majors. Gonzales confirmed that the pitch was a point of emphasis for him as he continues to work back into a starter’s role, and back from TJ surgery in 2016. “The curveball is something I’ve been really excited about since coming back from surgery. I feel like I’ve found a newfound confidence with it. I’m excited for its potential, and I feel like I can get even better with it.” Painter noted that he was pleasantly surprised with the action he saw on the curve. At times it was a standard 12-6 with looser rotation, around 78 mph. A few were power curves, however, with late break and tight spin that elicited swings and misses, especially in two-strike counts.
As for his best pitch, Gonzales grew up in the high-altitude environment of Fort Collins and had to master a changeup early on. “Coming from Colorado, that’s what you’re built with, you have to throw a changeup because you can’t throw anything else, so that’s just something that comes naturally.” Unfortunately, due to his fatigue, the changeup command wasn’t as sparkling as it usually is, and he left a few up over the plate in the sixth. But for Gonzales, this start is something to build on. “My repertoire is to keep guys off-balance and locate everything, and I can obviously get better at that and work to showcase that next time out,” he said.
Most importantly, he’s happy to go six pain-free innings, after an injury-riddled 2015/2016. Gonzales credits the Cardinals staff for helping him get back on the field so quickly, and is grateful to be able to pitch healthy again. “This year has been a real blessing because of that. The results are what they are, I really don’t care. My arm has been feeling great, and that’s a win for me.” Also a win: being traded to Seattle, where he lives in the off-season with his wife, a Seattleite. “I was always so jealous because my wife talks about how great the summers are here and I never got to experience it,” he says. “But I love it here, I love the climate, and it’s going to be great to pitch in.”