GJ Rockies' CF has improved defensively at still-new position
The ball came off the wall and Pedro Gonzalez played it perfectly on the hop, quickly throwing the ball to the infield.
In the 10th inning Monday night in the Grand Junction Rockies’ season opener, a deep fly ball got over his head, although his speed allowed him to nearly make a circus catch over his shoulder.
Center field is still a position Gonzalez, a converted shortstop, is learning, but after only one game, it’s clear he’s made strides from a year ago.
“I still need to keep working on taking routes to the ball, like, take better routes,” the 19-year-old said Tuesday. “Even when you have so much time playing the outfield, it’s not that easy. I need to keep learning that. During (batting practice) is a good time to work on that.”
When the Rockies are hitting before games, Gonzalez positions himself in center along with the pitchers who don’t have bullpen sessions that day. He’s not just trotting after fly balls, he’s working on reading the ball off the bat, where to position himself and what route to take to balls hit to his left or right.
That one ball where he got turned around allowed Idaho Falls to score a pair of runs, but Grand Junction manager Frank Gonzales said it wasn’t his center fielder’s fault.
“That ball that got hit late in the game, we have two outs and we’re in a good count to maybe strike the guy out,” he said. “I think the pitch could have been a little bit better but I think from a defensive standpoint I think (Gonzalez) was little bit shallow. We’ll wear that as a staff, we need to make sure our guys are in good position.
“Any time you’re playing in this altitude or anywhere in the Pioneer League, playing three or four steps back probably will buy you enough time to get to a ball like that. I thought he went back OK, was in between turning one way or another, but the ball was struck pretty well.”
That ball, off the bat of Freddy Fermin, was hit on a line toward right-center, and it just kept carrying for a two-run triple. Gonzalez often plays shallow, because with his long legs and speed, he can make up a lot of ground.
“Actually, it looked like it was a pretty easy fly ball at first, but it kept tailing on me,” Gonzalez said. “I didn’t want to turn at first, because the wall was right there. There are things to learn from that.”
One of the things he quickly learned about playing the outfield is it’s a lot easier to come in on a ball than it is to run one down that gets over your head.
The Rockies signed Gonzalez out of the Dominican Republic in 2014 as a shortstop, but he just kept getting taller. When he hit 6-foot-3, they moved him to the outfield, where he can utilize his speed. He’s now 6-5 and he’s not the lanky, almost skinny, kid he was a year ago, although there’s still work to do there, too, weighing in at only 190 pounds.
“Thirty pounds on that frame would do him wonders,” Gonzales said. “I think there’s room. I don’t think he realizes how big he could be, but it’s a matter of the process. We’re not going to rush the kid into gaining 30 pounds the wrong way. The right weight needs to be added there.”
In his first year in the United States, Gonzalez hit .290 with a pair of home runs. He hit one out to left field on Monday, and in the bottom of the ninth, with the Rockies down two runs, lashed a single to right that was misplayed into two extra bases and a pair of runs to send the game to extra innings.
Gonzalez came through with several late-game hits last season, and he loves that challenge.
In his second tour through the Pioneer League, the bilingual teen from Santo Domingo sees his role on the team expanding into one of a leader.
“I feel like I can be a leader for the team and I think I can be a clutch man, too,” he said. “If you have a leader everyone’s going to follow you and do good things so that’s what matters.”
He’s taken the players experiencing life in the States for the first time under his wing, helping them learn English and understand how they need to handle themselves on and off the field.
“I have a guy with my host family, first time in the States and I’m teaching him stuff,” Gonzalez said of second baseman Shael Mendoza, who is from San Pedro de Macoris in the Dominican Republic. “He’s learning a lot and doing really good. I help everybody here with the language, translate stuff; it’s pretty good.”
With so many players arriving the day before the season opened, the Rockies are still getting to know each other. It wasn’t a happy clubhouse Monday night, their skipper said, and that’s a good thing.
“It was quiet, of course, it’s not real celebratory when you lose a ballgame, and it shouldn’t be,” he said. “You want to think about it, learn from it and move on. I told the guys, ‘Listen, if you compete like that and lose a ballgame, there isn’t anybody going to say anything negative about it.’ I think it’s a big first step in becoming the club we want to become.”
The middle infielders, shortstop Alan Trejo and Mendoza, turned a sweet double play in the 10th inning, and Trejo made a couple of terrific stops on balls headed up the middle, including a leaping catch to rob Fermin in the eighth that had reliever Jorge Oviedo tipping his cap.
“The difference we need to make this year from last year, last year were got new guys from the draft and we didn’t know each other,” Gonzalez said. “We got to know each other by the end of the season and did better. This year we need everyone to know each other from the start, and I think we’re going to be pretty good.”