One of the guys
Three years after not making World Series roster, Gonzalez the catalyst for Mavs' offense
Three years ago, PJ Gonzalez flopped down on his couch and fired up his computer as his teammates were playing in the NCAA Division II World Series in Cary, North Carolina.
He was watching the video stream as CMU fell just short of winning the national championship.
“I was still pulling for the team, but it’s just not the same as being there,” the senior left fielder for the Colorado Mesa baseball team said Wednesday before the Mavericks’ first practice at Bergman Field since winning the South Central Regional title. The second-ranked Mavs (48-10) leave today for Grand Prairie, Texas, where they’ll play Quincy University (Illinois) at 6 p.m. on Sunday.
Gonzalez most definitely will be on the charter flight.
“There’s no words to describe how disappointing that is when you’re not with the rest of the team and the next three years, everybody’s talking about how great it was, and you just weren’t there,” he said.
Trevor and Kevan Elcock made the 25-man roster as freshmen that season, and catchers Kyle Serrano and Jake Druce made the trip, but weren’t active.
“It’s nice that those guys can bookend their careers going to the World Series,” CMU coach Chris Hanks said.
As he sat on his couch watching CMU reach the championship game, Gonzalez knew he wanted to be one of those 25 guys in the dugout, one of the names on the lineup card.
He got better every season, splitting time in left field as a sophomore. Last year he won the job and has played in all but one game this season, starting all but two.
His season started out like gangbusters, with multiple-hit games, driving in runs from the No. 5 spot, following Serrano and Bligh Madris.
Then, in the final game of a series against New Mexico Highlands, Hanks decided to move Gonzalez from fifth in the order to first.
“It kinda caught me off guard,” he said. “I led off a lot when I was younger. I wasn’t really expecting to lead off this year, but I just took the same approach, if they’re going to throw a fastball first pitch, I’m going to swing at it. I just try to be aggressive no matter where I am in the lineup.”
After that first game in the leadoff spot, Gonzalez was hitting .252. He enters the World Series hitting .367, third on the team, and had 40 of his 72 hits and 13 of his 25 walks from the top of the lineup. Third on the team in on-base percentage at .473, Gonzalez makes things happen.
Hanks loves how Gonzalez took not making the 2014 World Series squad and used it to his advantage.
“All PJ’s done since that time has come out here every single day and he’s worked hard at his game,” Hanks said. “If you ask me and as a coaching staff, we have a lot of great players, but if we have to pick an MVP of our team, I believe it would be PJ, just because he’s consistent, day-in, day-out, grind-it-out, play good defense, get on base.
“He solidified our leadoff spot when we were looking for one. That’s how important he is to this team.”
He made one of the most important plays of the season Monday in the regional title game. With two runners on in the fifth inning, Arkansas-Fort Smith had a chance to get back in the game. A ball was headed for the left-field corner, which would have scored both runners and cut Mesa’s deficit to 6-2.
Seemingly out of nowhere came Gonzalez, making a diving catch next to the foul line, rolling over and holding up his glove to make sure the umpire knew it was a clean catch.
“Pretty straight-up,” Gonzalez said of where he was positioned in left. “I got a good break and as it got closer I started realizing I had a chance, so I dove and caught it.”
He also tumbled over the left-field wall trying to make another catch, and he led off the game with a ringing single to center, scoring on Serrano’s double.
“He might be our best outfielder overall,” Hanks said, high praise when you consider Madris, the RMAC player of the year, starts in right or center.
“He can play any spot, you have great confidence in him in the way he prepares. Nobody outworks PJ, in the tunnel hitting or on defense. There are guys who work just as hard, but nobody outworks PJ.”
That work ethic will pay off after the season, with the recent graduate preparing for medical school — he plans to become an orthopedic surgeon.
“Texas Tech, UNLV and Arizona are my top three,” the Las Vegas product said. “It’ll be a long road, but I’m excited. That’s the next chapter of my life.”
First, the Mavericks want to finish this chapter.
Kyle Leahy (13-0) is slated to start Sunday’s game, with JR McDermott (9-1) on Tuesday. Having just played in Texas, the Mavericks feel comfortable going right back to the Lone Star State for the World Series.
“We’re just trying to take the same approach that we took last week into the regional,” said Madris, the Mavs’ leading hitter at .438. “We’re preparing ourselves the same way, not putting any extra pressure, like it’s another series.
“We got to feel what it’s like to play in Texas, see how the ball flies, so that helps hitters, and the pitchers know how to acclimate themselves, how their curve breaks, what their fastball does. It feels good going to Texas knowing we just won a regional down there and we’re going right back to where it started.”
The seniors know this is the last time they’ll suit up for Mesa, and for most of them, the last time they’ll play the game. It couldn’t be any sweeter for the players who watched from afar, who now are key components to this year’s success.
“It definitely makes you more hungry seeing what everybody else was going through,” said Serrano, who played at Central High School and was a Little League teammate of CMU closer Tyler Day.
Day has his own just-missed World Series experience — he was injured when his Blinn College (Texas) teammates played in the Alpine Bank Junior College World Series in, ironically, 2014.
“I got to experience it a little bit, but to actually go through it and see what everybody on the field is experiencing makes me that much more excited, being my last year,” Serrano said. “It’s everything falling into place, that extra X factor that gets me going.”