It wasn't that long ago that Nick Gonzales was an undervalued high school kid with exactly two offers to play college ball -- one from Austin Peay that included a sturdy scholarship, and one from New Mexico State University that came with a very modest opportunity -- to join the team as a walk-on.
Gonzales chose the latter. And since then, his star hasn't just risen -- it's skyrocketed.
The 21-year-old infielder was ranked as MLB Pipeline’s No. 5 Draft prospect, and on Wednesday night, the Pirates selected him with the seventh overall pick.
It’s a day Gonzales has been preparing for most of his life, and one he was doubly anxious for, given what's happening in current times. Normally, Gonzales would have been busy with baseball and school, and while Draft day wouldn't have been far from his mind, there would have been other things to think about, too. Instead, with a lot of time to fill, he's stayed in shape by working out, while waiting for Wednesday.
"This time that we're all in, in this pandemic, there's nothing you can look forward to other than everything opening up and going back to normal," Gonzales said in a phone interview with MLB.com last month. "What I have is this to look forward to. It's what I've been training for. So I'm super-excited and ready to get going. I'm anxious to see what happens. It's a big deal for me and my family."
Gonzales, a native of Vail, Ariz., is regarded as having as much pure hitting ability as any bat in the 2020 draft class. He slashed .347/.425/.596 his freshman season at New Mexico State, followed by .432/.532/.773 with 16 homers as a sophomore, which earned him the NCAA batting title. But there was skepticism along the way. Some thought the high altitude in New Mexico might be partly responsible for the inflated numbers; others pointed to Gonzales playing in the Western Athletic Conference as an easier pathway through the college ranks.
Gonzales quashed a lot of the criticism last summer while playing in the Cape Cod League. Competing against the best college players from all over the United States, Gonzales slashed .351/.451/.630 with seven homers in 153 at-bats, and was named the league's MVP.
"I knew going to Cape Cod that in order to be taken seriously, I would have to perform pretty well over there," he said. "I didn't really know how well I was doing -- I was just playing the game, playing baseball, having fun every day. At the end of the day, I was fortunate to do what I did there and open some eyes."
That wasn't the first time he rose to a challenge. Gonzales' decision to attend New Mexico State as a walk-on over accepting a scholarship offer stemmed from his desire to be closer to his family. His brother had played football for the Naval Academy in Annapolis, MD, and Gonzales never was able to see a home game in person.
Gonzales wanted his parents to be able to watch him play college baseball, a scenario that would have been difficult had he attended Austin Peay, located in Clarksville, Tenn. Instead, Gonzales chose close-to-home New Mexico State, not only without a scholarship but with no guarantees of playing time.
It worked out, obviously. Confidence has never been an issue for Gonzales; he's never lacked faith in his ability. New Mexico State head coach Mike Kirby noticed that right away after taking over the program last summer. Though he worked with Gonzales only a couple of months, Kirby, who has coached dozens of future Major Leaguers during his extensive coaching career, didn't need a lot of time to recognize a special talent.
"They all have pride and they're not scared to fail," Kirby said. "Nick doesn't care if he strikes out. A guy gets him out, it's a learning experience and he's already on it walking back. He's already setting his plan up. He doesn't go into panic-land.”
Kirby added that he was not surprised by Gonzales' projected standing in the Draft, given his raw top-10 talent-level and ability to juggle the mental push and pull that comes with being a ballplayer.
“I would say of all the players that I've ever coached, he's by far the most mature, disciplined,” Kirby said. “It's not close."