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GREENSBORO ― Often the game we love doesn’t love us back.
That’s baseball, a game of routine failure punctuated by just enough moments of success that keep us coming back for more.
And so it was for the Greensboro Grasshoppers’ Nick Gonzales when he stepped into the right-hand batter’s box with one out and the bases loaded in the 10th inning of the 11th game of his professional career.
Gonzales, the college hitting machine picked seventh overall in the 2020 draft, was 0-for-4 with two strikeouts against Rome pitchers up to that point. He had stranded five baserunners.
Gonzales took two balls from Rome right-hander Marrick Crouse, then swung at a pitch he liked … and hit a weak ground ball to shortstop. Another failure by Gonzales’ standards, poor contact not up to snuff with his own expectations.
And yet, it was enough for a perfect moment.
“I knew the bases were loaded,” Gonzales said, “and I figured all I had to do was put the ball in play and make something happen. The way the situation was, when I hit the ground ball, I knew I was a little early on it and got it off the end (of the bat).
“But I could tell I didn’t hit it hard enough for them to turn a double play as long as I ran hard. So I ran just as fast as I could, didn’t think about anything else except getting down the line to first. I beat it out, and I was safe, and I knew we had won. The game was over, and we sent everyone home. That was a lot of fun.”
Rome’s only chance was a double play, and the Braves forced out Matt Frazier, who had been intentionally walked to load the bases. But Gonzales’ footspeed beat the throw to first base easily, and Jack Herman scored from third.
Game over. Drive home safely.
The Hoppers spilled out of the dugout and mobbed Gonzales in a moment of pure joy, as the biggest crowd of the season so far stood and cheered.
“We couldn’t ask to have a better hitter at the plate in that situation,” Hoppers manager Kieran Mattison said. “If you want to load the bases to get to him, man, go right ahead. … It was a good moment. We talk about it all the time: Get down the line hard and put pressure on the defense. It’s for moments like that.”
And it’s a moment that tells you all you need to know about Nick Gonzales.
Dude is a ballplayer.
UNDERDOG TO PROSPECT
The same kind of hustle we saw on that fielder’s choice grounder landed Gonzales on the injured list during his first road trip.
Gonzales broke the pinky finger on his right hand during a collision at first base in a game at Hickory.
Jason Mackey of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reports the injury is a fracture to the volar plate, a ligament that joins two bones in his right little finger. The finger must be immobilized to heal.
The Pittsburgh Pirates placed Gonzales on the 7-day IL, but it’s an injury that needs 4-to-6 weeks to heal. Barring complications, that timeline puts him back in Greensboro’s lineup for home series against Greenville in late June or Asheville in early July.
So the season pauses for Gonzales with a .294 batting average in 13 games. Of his 15 hits, nine have gone for extra bases with seven doubles and two home runs.
It’s a setback, but Gonzales remains one of the top prospects in the game. MLB Pipeline ranks the 21-year-old second baseman as Pittsburgh’s No. 1 prospect and the No. 31 prospect in all of minor league baseball. (Author's note: MLB Pipeline rankings were revised after the July 11 draft; Gonzales is the Pirates' No. 4 prospect and No. 68 in the MiLB top 100).
It wasn’t always that way.
Gonzales grew up in Vail, Ariz. ― a town a little smaller than Reidsville ― about 25 miles southeast of Tucson. At 5-foot-10 and 180 pounds, most college recruiters passed over him. He walked on at New Mexico State and proved himself.
“I’ve always been the underdog throughout my career,” Gonzales said. “And now being a first-round pick or whatever, it’s kind of exciting. It’s cool, you know? Living up to the hype of being a first-rounder, that’s never really bothered me. … I see it as an incredible opportunity to be looked at and perceived as a guy like that.”
Gonzales earned it. He won the NCAA batting title with a .432 average his sophomore year, and in the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, he batted .448 with 12 homers in 16 games. In three years at New Mexico State, he batted .399 with 37 HRs and 152 RBIs in 128 games.
Gonzales closed his college career on an 82-game on-base streak.
“(College) was awesome,” Gonzales said. “I was fortunate enough to go to New Mexico State, and I had really great coaching all three years that I was there. I was under Brian Green for the first two years, and then Mike Kirby for my junior year. They were great guys, and I learned so much from them. I wouldn’t be where I am today without the guys who helped me.”
Talk to Gonzales for even a few minutes, and you discover a recurring theme. He credits those around him ― family, teammates and coaches ― for the success he’s earned.
It’s easy to dismiss college metal-bat success in a hitter’s ballpark at high altitude.
Until that same hitter tears up the prestigious wood-bat Cape Cod League.
“Cape Cod was amazing,” Gonzales said. “That was one of the best summers of my life. I went out there, and I didn’t really know what to expect. I made up my mind that I was going to have fun. And I was lucky to play for another great coach, Mike Roberts, and he helped me out so much. He was a great mentor and coach. I went there and played loose and free, with no stress and no worries. I met some really great people, some teammates I still talk to even now.”
Playing for the Contuit Kettleers in the summer of 2019, Gonzales earned league MVP honors when he batted .351 with 14 doubles, four triples, seven home runs and 33 RBIs in 42 games.
Why? Gonzales has incredibly fast hands and covers the entire strike zone with a short, compact swing and elite bat speed.
“I like to stay real tight through the swing ― a quick, short swing ― and try to hit everything hard,” Gonzales said. “The goal every single game is to hit two balls hard, whether I get a hit or not. Just hit two balls hard in fair territory.
“It’s been kind of natural. I took (the short swing) as my own and embraced it. It was something my dad taught me as a kid, to have real short swing. I worked on it, and worked on it, and worked on it some more. And now, that’s my swing.”
Little tweaks to the swing over time produced remarkable power from Gonzales’ compact frame. Green, the former New Mexico State coach, worked with Gonzales to raise his hands slightly in his stance, adjust his elbow position and get more out of his legs.
The result? A quick bat got even quicker. Gonzales hit nine home runs as a freshman, 16 in two fewer games as a sophomore.
All that hard contact paid off on draft day, and Gonzales signed with the Pirates for a reported bonus of $5,432,400, the slot value for the No. 7 pick.
THE SAME GUY
The pressure and the hype could crush some players. But not Gonzales.
His makeup is part of what drew the Pirates to him in the first place. He’s the same guy now he was then, a team player who loves the game.
“I’ve been playing baseball since I was 3 or 4 years old,” Gonzales said. “Some of my best memories, really, are playing with my brother and my dad. Just going into the backyard and having fun, or having fun at ballparks with them. The atmosphere of being at a ballpark and everything that goes with it, that’s what I love.”
Gonzales older brother, Daniel, played linebacker at Navy. Their father, Mike, works as a superintendent for a home builder in the Tucson suburbs.
“Sometimes, whenever I start to feel like this is work, I think of how lucky I am,” Gonzales said. “I’m playing baseball as my job. I think of what my dad used to tell me, that this is a game. He’d say, ‘You have so much fun and you love doing this, and it’s your job now. You can’t really complain, can you?’ He’s right. I see him wake up early every morning and go to work at his job. That’s a grind. You know what I mean? I’m playing a game. It’s supposed to be fun.”
And it’s even fun, Gonzales said, when the game doesn’t love you back. That’s just baseball.
“I’m a guy who gives all his energy and plays hard every single game,” Gonzales said. “In and out of the dugout, I want to be the same guy regardless of whether I go 0-for-5 or 5-for-5. I wouldn’t want anyone to be able to tell how I’m doing based on body language. …
“The goals for me are simple, and they’re the same they’ve always been: have fun and get better. That’s it. Nothing fancy.”