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Grip on Sports: Gonzales has been the biggest surprise for the surprising Mariners

Seattle Mariners starting pitcher Marco Gonzales throws to a Los Angeles Angels batter during the first inning  Wednesday in Anaheim, Calif. Gonzales allowed two hits in seven shutout innings to earn his 10th win. (Jae C. Hong / AP)
Seattle Mariners starting pitcher Marco Gonzales throws to a Los Angeles Angels batter during the first inning Wednesday in Anaheim, Calif. Gonzales allowed two hits in seven shutout innings to earn his 10th win. (Jae C. Hong / AP)

A GRIP ON SPORTS • NFL teams can go from mediocre to pretty good quickly. NBA squads become playoff teams sometimes overnight. But to go from below average to good in professional baseball, a surprise or two is imperative. The Mariners have one of those in Marco Gonzales. Read on.

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• Many in Spokane knew Gonzales when he was the best player in the West Coast Conference. Not just the best pitcher – he was that – but the best player. In his three years at GU, he was the WCC’s co-player of the year twice (2011 and 2013) and the pitcher of the year (2012). 

He was also the John Olerud two-way player of the year in 2013, a national award named after, ironically enough, the Washington State standout who also played for the Mariners.

But Olerud, a left-handed hitting pitcher/first baseman like Gonzales, left the mound behind when he became a pro. Gonzales took the other path and seemed ticketed for early success after being a first-round draft pick by the St. Louis Cardinals in 2013.

He was in the majors less than a year after leaving Gonzaga and won two games in the 2014 division series against the Dodgers. 

But in 2015 he dealt with arm problems and only pitched one game in the bigs. He ultimately underwent Tommy John surgery and missed the entire 2016 season. On his return in 2017, he threw once for the Cardinals before being traded to the Mariners in mid-July. The deal, which cost Seattle touted prospect Tyler O’Neil, seemed a bit desperate – the M’s needed pitching in another failed attempt to make the postseason – and reeked of selling the future for an uncertain present. It especially seemed to reek after Gonzales finished last season with an earned run average over five in his 10 Mariner appearances.

But Jerry Dipoto knew something we may not have: Gonzales had yet to fully recover from the Tommy John surgery. He was taking the mound without all his weapons. Only time, and its healing powers, would return those to him.

They are back now. And the 2018 Mariners are reaping the benefits.

Gonzales has been a revelation – and one of the reasons Seattle is in the American League West race. Not only is he the winningest pitcher on Seattle’s staff – last night’s seven shutout innings against the Angels lifted his record to 10-5 – he has also been one of the American League’s best starters the last month or so.

The lefty doesn’t overpower anyone. He doesn’t have to. 

I remember covering a Gonzales start when he was at GU, sitting in the press box right behind home plate less than 100 feet from batter's box. After just a few innings, I corralled former Gonzaga coach Steve Hertz and told him how impressed I was with not just Gonzales’ command, but with the late movement on every pitch. It was the best I have ever seen from a college pitcher.

He smiled. It was that obvious. And now, more than a year after having a ligament replaced in his elbow, it is obvious it’s back. 

Though Gonzales still rarely throws the ball by anyone, major league hitters also rarely barrel up any of his pitches. The late, quick dart, either in, out or down, means many a possible line drive turn into popups or weak ground balls.

Add that to his ability to throw any pitch for a strike in any count and Gonzales is doing his best imitation of Warren Spahn. Or, to sound a bit more modern, Jamie Moyer, though Moyer is a bad comparison because Gonzales can actually break a pane of glass with his fastball.

As for O’Neil, the talented outfielder is hitting the cover off the ball – for Memphis, the Cardinals’ Triple-A affiliate. For St. Louis, he’s had a few chances, but has yet to really connect, hitting just .227 this season. 

That average would probably be even lower if he ever had to face one of the American League’s best starters. We are referring to, of course, Marco Gonzales.

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WSU: Around the Pac-12, the football media day is just around the corner – July 25 – with Oregon quarterback Justin Herbert one of the headliners. … Former Arizona State football coach Darryl Rogers died Wednesday. … In basketball news, Oregon State will have a huge presence in the middle next season. … Former UCLA basketball player Billy Knight was facing child molestation charges when he died. 

Gonzaga: Jordan Mathews is ready for whatever happens after spending some time with the Los Angeles Clippers’ summer league team. … Jesse Wade, who announced his transfer from Gonzaga last month, is headed to BYU. The guard will have to sit out a year before playing for the Cougars. Jim Meehan has more in this story. … Jim also has a story on the men’s basketball team earning a national academic award.

Idaho: The Vandals have hired a new women’s soccer coach.

Indians: Being home is nice, but not all that nice when you fall behind by six runs. However, Spokane rallied in the late innings and defeated Eugene 8-7 at Avista Stadium last night. Dave Nichols was there and he has this game story. … Libby Kamrowski was also there and has a photo report. … Around the Northwest League, Everett snapped a five-game losing streak.  

Chiefs: Spokane signed its most recent import player to a contract. 

Golf: Last year’s runner-up, Russell Grove, is ready to take the next step at the Rosauers Open Invitational this year. Jim has a preview of the three-day event, which begins Friday at Indian Canyon.

Preps: The Seattle Times has a story on former UW golfer Joel Dahmen’s recent rise in the PGA rankings, but, as of 8 a.m. he was described as a “Clarksville” native. That would be Clarkston.  

Mariners: Besides Gonzales’ outstanding pitching performance yesterday in the 3-0 win over the Angels, there was other news. Jean Segura won the fan vote and will be an American League all-star.

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• Between Gonzales and Wade LeBlanc, the M’s have two starting pitchers who are outperforming expectations. They may need one or two more down the stretch if they want to hold off Oakland or catch Houston. Until later … 


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