Marco Gonzales was catching up on some much-needed sleep.
Minor league baseball’s long trips are the perfect mixture of relentless and restless, and the bus making a seven-hour overnighter from Oklahoma City to Memphis that pulled into its Tennessee home at 8 a.m. had wiped out the pitcher and the rest of the team.
He was in his bed in the small studio apartment he shared with his wife (who also just happens to be his longtime college sweetheart from their days together at Gonzaga). The phone rang at 10:30 a.m.
Gonzales answered in the kind groggy fog that takes awhile to shake when you’re trying to realize whether you’re awake or in the middle of a dream.
It didn’t take long for him to be wide awake. It was the general manager of the St. Louis Cardinals. He had just been traded to a team that was a perfect fit.
Marco was going to be a Mariner.
“By the end of the phone call, I was on my feet and in tears, because I knew we’d be coming home,” he said.
Literally and figuratively.
In the offseason, Marco and Monica lived in Seattle. They went to Gonzaga together, where they started dating as freshmen. Monica received her degree in sports marketing in the spring of 2014, while Gonzales was the Cardinals’ first-round pick in 2013 after one of the most dominating baseball careers in Gonzaga history.
They got married at Sodo Park, about a mile from Safeco Field.
During baseball season, Marco’s mostly minor league life all but ensured they lived all across the nation.
But Washington state was always home.
And that journey home was more than just miles on the road.
Gonzales might be the best young starting pitcher in baseball no one knows.
Take a quick glance at the top 20 pitchers in the American League in numerous statistical categories and it’s hard not to notice his name – and typically right in the middle of all of the leaders. ERA. Innings pitched. Fewest walks.
He even leads the league in pickoffs.
But not Mariners manager Scott Servais.
Both Servais and Gonzales are from Colorado, and the Seattle skipper’s son is about the same age as Gonzales. He even saw him play in high school.
Back when Servais was with the Anaheim Angels and was involved with the team’s possible draft selections, he watched Gonzales with the Zags.
“I loved how he pitched and his feel for the game,” Servais said. “He’s a great athlete, he’s been around baseball his entire life and he’s a smart player. This was a kid who you knew had a high ceiling.”
Growing up a Rockies fan and playing in Fort Collins, Colorado, Gonzales was quickly making an impression across the state.
As a senior in high school, he was named Colorado’s high school baseball player of the year. He was even drafted by the Rockies. Instead, he went to Gonzaga.
His athleticism was on display from his first year in Spokane. In his first season as a Bulldog, he was named the West Coast Conference’s co-player of the year, along with National League 2016 MVP Kris Bryant.
It wasn’t just that Gonzales could pitch, he could do it all.
When he wasn’t on the mound, he was in the field. As a sophomore, he was an All American. He was the Bulldogs’ best hitter during his junior season. In 2013, he was named the best two-way player in all of college baseball.
Spokane is where he met Monica. At Gonzaga, they were both living in the only all-freshmen co-ed dorm.
They had friends who were dating. Eventually, they did, too.
To this day, when they talk about each other, they smile. They’re close and it shows.
“She’s the only one with a degree, so she’s carrying the team,” he says with a grin.
They can tell you who’s the better cook and whose food is healthier. (Hint, she’s a nutritionist.)
“I’m the one who says, ‘Not too much of the oil, not too much of this and that,’” Monica said. “I remind him to make sure to use ingredients that provide healthy fats for energy. I’m definitely in his ear when he’s cooking.”
They talk about their love of the outdoors. They hang out. And they love to talk about their time together in Spokane.
Their wardrobe is made up of an inordinate amount of Gonzaga hats, sweaters and shirts.
“My entire closet is Gonzaga stuff,” he said. “I probably wear too much at times. I represent pretty well – to the point where I might over-represent.”
Earlier this season, those worlds collided in the best, but most nerve-racking way possible.
The Mariners typically host a Gonzaga Night each season. It’s a game at Safeco that allows West Side Bulldogs a chance to bond and get a little Mariners-tinged Zag swag at the same time.
This year’s Gonzaga Night was in June when Seattle hosted Tampa Bay on a Saturday evening.
And Gonzales was the Mariners’ starting pitcher.
Only he wasn’t originally supposed to pitch that night, much to his initial relief. Gonzales loved the idea that he could take that game off and relax a little, since many of his college friends and teammates would be in town. You know, just kind of soak it all in.
Then there was a rainout game in early May. The Mariners’ pitching rotation switched a little.
About three weeks before the game, Monica told Gonzales that it looked like he might actually start on Gonzaga Night.
The normally calm, cool and collected Gonzales felt his nerves kick in.
“It was one of those games where I was trying to keep it as normal of a game as I could, but it felt much more than that to me,” he said. “I knew it was special.”
And he played that way.
He pitched 6 2/3 innings, striking out six, while getting the win for the home team. He walked off the field in the seventh inning to a standing ovation.
Most of the time, Marco doesn’t get too nervous before his starts. Monica, on the other hand …
“I try to hide my anxiety until after he leaves,” she said. “I have to go on a long run so I can get out the jitters. He’s not nervous at all, so I think it all goes to me.”
Don’t even get her started about when the ball rockets back at him after he’s thrown a pitch.
“I feel my stomach come up in my throat.”
And after the game?
“One of the biggest blessings in our relationship, and one thing I realized when we were in college, was his ability to be the same person when he leaves the field, no matter what happened during the game,” she said. “It’s fun being here in Seattle because it’s easy for our friends and family to watch him every single game, and they always talk about how it doesn’t look like the Marco they know.
“On the mound, he looks like a different person. When he’s at home, he’s happy-go-lucky, super go with the flow. I recognized that in him when he was at the minor leagues. Even at Gonzaga, he was very competitive, but when he’s not on the field, he’s just Marco. I think that’s the coolest thing about him.”
For him, it hasn’t always been easy.
After being drafted in the first round by the Cardinals in 2013, the first few years went according to the script. He pitched well at each level of the minor leagues and was called up to the majors for a couple of games, including pitching for St. Louis in 2014 postseason games against the Dodgers and Giants.
In December of that year, he was named the Cardinals’ minor league pitcher of the year.
The 2015 season was tougher, as Gonzales battled a persistent shoulder injury. In the spring of 2016, he was diagnosed with a torn ulnar collateral ligament in his left elbow.
The road to recovery starts now! Thanks everyone for your support! pic.twitter.com/FoodoEmbsS— Marco Gonzales (@MarcoGonzales_) April 16, 2016
That’s the fancy way of saying he needed Tommy John surgery, meaning he would lose an entire season to recover.
Instead of setting Gonzales back, he became even more focused. He told others that if he took even a second to be upset about it, it was a second lost from moving forward.
“Once I accepted that this was my road, my mind started to shift and I decided to conquer this new challenge,” he said. “It was my new season. It was my new mountain that I had to climb.
By most early indications during the 2017 season, he had recovered from the surgery, but like lots of pitchers who have Tommy John, something had changed.
When he first came up with the Cardinals, Gonzales got caught up in trying to be like other guys in the organization and trying to prepare like other pitchers. It wasn’t until he went through all of his injuries and the resulting long recovery that he began to develop his own routines.
Marco was becoming his own man on the mound. He was learning himself.
Then the trade to the Mariners came.
The change was nearly immediate – the Mariners’ clubhouse and personality is a lot different than the Cardinals, and Gonzalez benefited from the change of scenery.
The Mariners were a little more youthful and not nearly as set in their ways.
He added a couple of new pitches, including a cut fastball that he throws with great command. His curveball improved.
Gonzales used to predominately throw a fastball and an impressive changeup. Now he has a few more options to choose from.
After a few starts in Seattle, something else changed. Servais said Gonzales’ mindset evolved. He went into attack mode.
“Marco just doesn’t back off the gas now,” Servais said. “You’ll see young pitchers struggle when there are guys on base and they worry about being perfect, and then they get into more trouble.
“Marco went the other way. He said, ‘I’m not going to try to be perfect, I’m just going to attack and be the aggressor.’ And when he’s done that, really good things have happened. Even if he gives up a run or two, he doesn’t give up three or four runs. He doesn’t allow the game to blow up.
“He manages the game much better and his ability to quickly recognize which of his pitches are working and what isn’t working is impressive. He’s developed a really good feel and he’s been able to take that and ride it.”
As good as the change was for Gonzales, it was even better for the Mariners.
Seattle is now in the thick of a postseason race. The team is well over .500, and if the season ended today, the Mariners would have one of the wild-card playoff spots.
The team’s TV ratings are up, and Safeco Field has become the place to be when the Mariners are in town.
And the kid from Gonzaga is a huge part of it.
“We wouldn’t be in this spot right now it if wasn’t for Marco Gonzales,” Servais said. “He’s been one of our most consistent guys.”