Gonzalez focused on mental part of pitching

Righty faces Dodgers on Friday in bid for fifth starter's spot

March 3rd, 2016

SURPRISE, Ariz. -- The memory of his one postseason appearance remains embedded in Chi Chi Gonzalez's mind. The Rangers trailed 2-0 when Gonzalez took over for Martin Perez and was looking at the bases loaded and nobody out in the top of the sixth.

Gonzalez almost escaped without allowing a run. Toronto's Chris Colabello pounded a 94 mph fastball right at first baseman Mitch Moreland, who threw home to start a double play.

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Troy Tulowitzki was next, and Gonzalez made an error in pitching judgment. He did not throw his sinker, his best pitch. Instead, he alternated between two pitches that looked the same: his slider and his changeup. Both came in at 88-89 mph. Tulowitzki worked the count full and then crushed an 88 mph changeup into the left-field seats for a three-run home run.

"Yeah, it was pointed out to me my pitches were the same speed," Gonzalez said. "He was sitting on it. The two pitches looked the same, and he was sitting on it. I let my guard down."

That's just one of many lessons learned in his rookie season with the Rangers. Gonzalez reached the Major Leagues less than two years after being selected with the 23rd overall pick of the First-Year Player Draft.

Gonzalez had a spectacular start, got knocked around pretty good and then ended up in the bullpen in September. Now he is starting Friday against the Dodgers in a Cactus League game in Surprise. He is scheduled to pitch just two innings, but it will be his first foray into the intense competition for the fifth starter's spot.

"I think it's healthy," Gonzalez said. "You can't take a day off. You have to go out there and compete. Whoever wins, it is going to be great."

For Gonzalez to win it, he has to learn off the lessons from last season. He has to mix his pitches and change speeds to be successful.

"I'm going to throw (the sinker) ... and the changeup," Gonzalez. "I am a groundball pitcher, and that's how I get my early outs. That's how I got here. But I have to use all my pitches. I think last year I got too repetitive in my approach."

He was 2-1 with a 0.90 ERA in his first four starts after being brought up to the big leagues at the end of May. The last of those four starts ended with an ominous warning. He had a 2-0 lead when Justin Turner hit a first-pitch fastball for a two-run home run. It was the fourth straight hitter Gonzalez had started off with a fastball.

Gonzalez lost his next three starts by allowing 15 runs in 131/3 innings and was sent back to Triple-A.

"My scouting report got out," Gonzalez said. "I was throwing the sinker in and the slider away. I was basically alternating those pitches, and it worked for four starts. Then teams started figuring it out."

So the bottom line for Gonzalez is, he needs to use all four of his pitches. He is still going to rely on the hard sinker but he needs a slider above 85 mph, a changeup below that line, and a curveball to keep hitters off balance. He does not have overpowering stuff, but has always been considered a pitcher with savvy, good mound presence and a feel for pitching.

The Rangers will see if that comes out in Spring Training.

"They gave me an opportunity last year," Gonzalez said. "I had some good starts and some failures and I learned from it."