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Mariners LHP Marco Gonzales
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Drayer: How Marco Gonzales ‘became a different guy’ on mound with Mariners

Mariners opening day won’t be Thursday afternoon as originally scheduled, but when it does take place, it will be Marco Gonzales on the hill for Seattle. It won’t be his first opening day start, but it will be the first he makes after earning the “foundational player” tag from Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto and the contract that comes with it.

How the Mariners’ notable starting pitchers looked this spring

Unlike the prospects who are also viewed to be foundational players, Gonzales brings experience, though at 27 he’s a young veteran. What’s been interesting to watch about him since he arrived via trade from the Cardinals in July 2017 is how quickly he evolved. He went from a young pitcher full of question marks coming off Tommy John Surgery – in an early interview he said he felt he needed to ‘conserve his bullets’ because nobody knows how many they have – to a give-me-the-ball, I-will-take-on-whatever-you-need-me-to player that is trusted to lead.

His path has been an interesting one. The son of an eight-year minor leaguer and current Double-A pitching coach, Gonzales spent his earliest years growing up in clubhouses both here and abroad. When the family settled in Fort Collins, Colo., he became a standout two-way player at Rocky Mountain High School. A 29th-round MLB Draft pick in 2010, Gonzales elected to accept a scholarship offer to Gonzaga instead of going pro, not really believing he was going to be a next-level player.

“I kind of was always told that I didn’t throw hard enough,” Gonzales said. “There was nothing really, for lack of a better word, ‘sexy’ in what I did, so I wasn’t really projectable. I heard that a lot in my life.”

The funny thing was, though, for someone who was repeatedly told he wasn’t ‘the guy,’ he kept getting the ball in big situations.

“When I was a freshman in high school I pitched the state championship in the final game,” he said. “I think from that moment I realized that I was born to be in that moment. I was ready for it. I was swimming a little bit the first time but ever since then I have valued that moment. I was ready and I wanted the ball. I think for every game I take that mentality into it.”

And so in 2013, there he was, selected by the Cardinals – a pitching strong organization – with the 19th pick of the draft. One publication dubbed him “arguably the ‘safest’ pitching prospect in the 2013 draft,” while again stating there was nothing ‘sexy’ about what he did and that he was tough to project.

Fuel for the fire.

“Once I got drafted (by the Cardinals) I really just ran with it,” said Gonzales. “I said to myself that I really just am going to prove myself every day and prove to everyone else that doubted me. I’m going to prove them wrong because I know I can pitch a long time in this league.”

Fiery is usually the first word that comes out of teammates’ mouths when asked to describe Gonzales. If he doesn’t like something that happened in a game, you might not hear about it (although sometimes you will, as was the case when he declared that everyone knew the Red Sox were up to something after a loss in Boston in 2018), but you will certainly feel it in the postgame interview. To be clear, that’s gone soon after the game. Around the clubhouse he keeps things light. That said, it is safe to say that there is a bit of a chip on his shoulder, and that’s not a bad thing.

“It’s hard to explain a chip on your shoulder when I was a first-rounder and I went to a D1 school,” he explained, “but for me I looked around and I never thought that I could play with the big guys. I never thought that I could hang with the guys throwing 95, 100 mph. I just never thought that was me. So I always amped up my competition, I always tried to jump up the work ethic to match that. So what I lacked in ability, I tried to keep up in other areas.”

The “safest choice” in the 2013 draft soon found himself pitching six innings in the 2014 MLB postseason, but what followed was a 2015 season that was plagued by shoulder troubles and a 2016 season that ended in Tommy John surgery. In 2017, he was traded to the Mariners, where he looked to come back from the surgery and finally really find himself as a pitcher. His early outings were short, and not just because of health. There were questions if he could make it past the fifth inning.

“When I first came up, I really wanted to be a big leaguer,” he said. “I wanted to pitch like a big leaguer, I wanted to strike everyone out. I wanted to avoid contact. In that I didn’t really know that I was pitching timid a little bit,” he said. “I think it wasn’t until I came here where I realized that I don’t know why I have always been pitching timid in pitching at the highest level. That I needed to be aggressive, I needed to go and use this fuel and compete with that. I think I became a different guy when I came over here.”

Or he got back to the guy he was before he stepped into a pro clubhouse. Rather than try and live up to what he wasn’t, Gonzales got back to what he was. Since then, he’s come to understand the value of what he can do without the ‘sexy,’ projectable stuff. The current book on him around the league is that he’s sneaky good, durable. And although it’s less so today, his talents are sometimes overlooked by the other side.

“That’s a good thing,” Gonzales said with a laugh. “I want to fly under the radar, I want to continue to be sneaky. I love proving people wrong. It’s been really, really tough to fight through that and fight through peoples’ stigmas of me. Low ceiling, not projectable. But I think what people can’t evaluate, my ability to learn, my ability to compete and adjust, my ability to grow in the game. I feel like every year since I have been healthy I’ve gotten better and I don’t think you can judge that.”

Watch the video interview for more about what makes Marco tick as well as his top three tips for frying a turkey, how he helped his mom when she decided to become a fire fighter, and a bittersweet travel wish.

Let’s get to know Marco Gonzales a little better.

Follow 710 ESPN Seattle’s Shannon Drayer on Twitter.

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