Changeup dazzles for Gonzales in second straight quality start

April 14th, 2024

PHILADELPHIA -- saw the Phillies’ very right-handed lineup and knew that he would have to leverage his offspeed stuff while attacking with the fastball. Pitch sequencing and execution is the name of the game for the Pirates’ southpaw.

So of course, his Saturday afternoon at Citizens Bank Park started with lefty Kyle Schwarber blasting a home run to left-center.

“It's ironic to give up a homer to a lefty first, second pitch of the game, and then shut them down after that,” Gonzales said, cracking a bit of a smirk in his answer.

It has to be easier to smile knowing that pitch was his one mistake of the game. Gonzales did shut down a potent Phillies lineup for the next six innings, allowing just two runs while striking out five, but lefties Aroldis Chapman and Jose Hernandez were wild against the top of the Phillies’ order in the seventh and ninth, respectively, and Nick Castellanos roped a walk-off single in a 4-3 Pirates loss.

That’s now three good starts for Gonzales to begin his Pirates career, being on the hook for five runs over 17 innings (2.65 ERA) with 11 strikeouts to five walks. His path to the Pirates may not have been the flashiest offseason move -- being dealt twice during the Winter Meetings in December with a brief layover with the Braves -- but so far, he’s pitching and feeling better than he did at any point during his injury-shortened 2023 campaign.

“I think this is, as far as execution-wise and movement on my pitches, this is some of my best execution,” Gonzales said. “I'm hoping to stay within that."

On Saturday, that meant focusing in on the changeup. While Gonzales considers it his best offering -- and the data would back that claim up, holding hitters to a .222 average against it last season with a 29.5% whiff rate -- it was only his fourth-most frequent pitch over his first two starts, throwing it just 14.3% of the time. That changed this outing. Of the 90 pitches he threw on Saturday, 27 were four-seam fastballs and 26 were changeups.

Again, the results backed him up. Gonzales got 11 whiffs on the afternoon, nine of which were with the changeup against 18 swings (50%). All five of his strikeouts were with changeups too, including a pair against lefties.

“Today, for whatever reason, got a lot of swings and misses on it,” Gonzales said about the pitch. “I think we set it up well, too. Really pounded the fastball on the inner half and used the cutter well. Just really, really leveraged it really nice."

Looking at its usage, Gonzales did pound right-handers inside with more four-seamers and cutters, while the changeup would fall out of the zone low and away. And after allowing both of his runs in that first frame, he was able to use it to keep the Phillies off the barrel the rest of the way.

“I thought the best changeups he threw were in the sixth,” said manager Derek Shelton. “He kept them at bay. Again, we're talking about a really good lineup. After the first inning he really settled in and did a really nice job.

“And when he’s pitching like this, he is a much calmer, more confident guy on the mound, while maintaining a good mental approach to the game.”

"You know these are professional hitters,” Gonzales said. “You know they are going to get you eventually. So if you stay the course, remain calm, even in an environment like this, the ball will go your way. It's really when you let it snowball and mentally let it compound on you, then that's when they can feast. But when you can remain within yourself and it's just a game of executing pitches, then that's what gets you back to your game."

So far, he’s looked like the pitcher he was from 2018-2022 that the Pirates hoped he could be again when they acquired him. From rehab for his forearm surgery last year to going to Driveline to regain his changeup and cutter, he’s been building towards starts like this.

"It's been a lot of work that's been put in for a lot of months,” Gonzales said. “Since last year, really. So it doesn't stop. Over the course of my life, I've thrown a ball for 30 years now, and I never stopped defining my craft and trying to be a master at it. That's what I hope to be.”