Drayer: In first full year in majors, Mariners’ Marco Gonzales ‘really helping this ball club’
Marco Gonzales made his major league debut in 2014 and exceeded his rookie limits in 2017, but in reality, this season has felt like his first in the big leagues.
He had a whirlwind first taste of the big leagues with the Cardinals that included three appearances out of the bullpen in the postseason. That and the 40 innings between St. Louis and Seattle last year, following Tommy John surgery and rehab, was hardly representative of the everyday business of being a starter in the majors.
“It does feel like my first year,” Gonzales said. “It really feels like my first time contributing, too. Getting comfortable in my routine and getting comfortable with the guys. I think that is a huge thing just being able to be yourself and come in here and do what you are able to do.”
Through conversations with Gonzales after his trade from the Cardinals last year, you could tell he was cautious in his comeback from the surgery and still figuring out what he was able to do. He was uncertain in what he had and how long he would have it, going so far as to tell me in a pregame interview last August, “Right now I am in the business of conserving my bullets. I feel like I am pitching on borrowed time a little bit.”
This year has been a different story. Finding what he had in spring training after a normal offseason was an eye-opening experience. The changeup and curve were perhaps better than expected. The cutter he took out of his repertoire in 2017 to avoid strain on his elbow came along nicely. Success in his spring outings seemed to set him up well for the regular season, and when a few bumps came early, he allowed himself to work through them.
“I’ve stuck to the thought process of making this a learning and development career for me,” he said. “Honestly, this year has been learning from each outing, working on things every bullpen, trying to take little things from here and there, and then when you go out there, just go out and compete. Just try to give us a chance to win and have that at the forefront of my thoughts during the game.”
Giving the Mariners a chance to win the last two weeks has meant not giving up very many runs, and Gonzales has gone one step further, not allowing an earned run in his last three starts. While the streak is eye-catching, he has put up steady performances for the majority of the season, averaging over six innings per start with an ERA of 2.08 in his last seven games.
“I don’t think Marco has been getting nearly as much credit as due,” catcher Mike Zunino said on the field following Monday’s 2-1 win over the Rangers. “He’s been throwing the ball extremely well, keeping us in ball games. Today was probably his best start in the sense I don’t think he had the stuff he wanted. He had to fight through some stuff and he made some great adjustments. To me that shows he is maturing as a pitcher and he is really helping this ball club.”
Now healthy and confident, we are also seeing Gonzales tap into a competitiveness that helped him become a first-round draft pick and top prospect. While that played well in college ball at Gonzaga and in the lower levels of the pros, Gonzales said it was something he found could be a detriment against big league hitters.
“I think it gets the best of me sometimes,” he said. “Maybe when I get guys on base in the past I have kind of ramped up and it has fueled my fire a little more. I have been able to use that and channel it into commanding the zone better and still using that aggressiveness in a positive way. I always just played with a chip on my shoulder. I knew the one thing I could control was my competitive edge inside of the game.”
With his competitiveness in check, or perhaps channeled, the final piece of the puzzle for Gonzales has been trusting his stuff.
“I think one of the things that has limited me in the past is I haven’t been able to allow my pitches to work for me,” he said. “What that means to me is getting into good counts and being able to execute with a purpose instead of nibbling at the edge of the strike zone. I have used the terms aggressive and attack in the past and those are key words for me, things that I can say to myself on the mound. And that’s what allows me to be effective when I am in attack mode and not when I am in pitch-making mode and trying to nibble strikes here and there.”
The aggressiveness is something that Zunino has appreciated.
“He’s always on the attack and I think that mentality has really helped him this year,” he said. “For him, to be able to go after hitters with all of his pitches is one of those things that is really going to make him good and puts the hitters on the defensive.”
It is just a start, or perhaps more accurately a restart, but what the Mariners are currently getting out of Gonzales bodes well for the future. And it’s a very long future at that – he his under club control through the 2023 season.