Flash back if you will to one of the most painful to watch games of the season for the Colorado Rockies. It’s August 29 and the Pittsburgh Pirates have jumped out to a 7-0 lead at Coors Field on their way to an 11-8 victory.
On that day, Colorado Rockies starting pitcher Chi Chi Gonzalez doesn’t even make it through the first inning, giving up a home run to leadoff batter Kevin Newman and throwing just 27 pitches, seven of those going for hits. He retires just two Pirates before manager Bud Black has seen enough and goes to his bullpen.
It was a broken moment in a broken Rockies season. Gonzalez also admits that it could’ve been a devastating blow to his confidence the rest of the season. Following the short start against the Pirates, the 27-year-old right-hander was 0-6 and had given up 12 runs and 10 hits in his last five innings.
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“In that Pirates game, I was lost,” Gonzalez told me in an exclusive chat. “It’s easy to get lost. We have a good clubhouse that brought me back though.”
And there was one player in particular who reinforced to Gonzalez that he had still had plenty left in him: Ian Desmond.
There’s a reason why Desmond was named as Colorado’s nominee for the Roberto Clemente Award, a prestigious award that honors MLB players whose character best represents the game, on and off the field.
There’s also a reason why Desmond has been nominated for the award for three consecutive seasons. Yes, there’s plenty that he does to raise funds to combat neurofibromatosis (NF), a genetic disorder that causes tumors to grow along nerves, bones and skin. There’s also a lot that Desmond does behind the scenes to help his fellow players in the clubhouse.
On a very dark August day in the mind of Gonzalez, Desmond flashed his veteran presence and leadership.
“Desmond talking to me and saying, ‘It sucks that it happened to you, but it’s going to happen to someone,'” Gonzalez laughed when he remembered the interaction. “It kind of brought me back to reality and helped me know that I am a good pitcher.”
In his two starts since the Pittsburgh fiasco, Gonzalez has allowed two runs and three hits in 6.1 innings at the Los Angeles Dodgers and four hits and one run in six innings at Coors Field against the St. Louis Cardinals. That last performance earned Gonzalez his first win since September 22, 2015, and snapped a franchise-record nine-game losing streak for the Rockies when Gonzalez had taken the mound.
“In those games, I was able to get a quality start with my stuff. Now I know I’m going to get a quality start,” Gonzalez said of his last two starts. “I have that confidence and I have some velo (velocity) behind it. I’m convicted and I want to make this pitch an out.”
When I asked Desmond about what he said to Gonzalez after that Pittsburgh game, he was quick to tell me it was no pep talk. It was rather an honest conversation between two teammates.
“I’ve seen him pitch well. I know what he’s capable of. Sometimes as players we need reminders of that,” Desmond told me. “I was being honest with him. I was telling him what I felt. I’m glad that it resonated with him and helped him.”
With Gonzalez having his next start scheduled for Sunday in the series finale against the San Diego Padres at Coors Field, he likely has three to four more starts left this season (depending on what Black does with his rotation if Kyle Freeland returns). Gonzalez believes he is taking a different mindset to the mound in September than he did earlier in the season.
“It was different tonight. I felt stronger in a sense,” Gonzalez told me after the Cardinals game. “It’s nice looking up when you get after a pitch late and you still have a 93 or 94 (mph) pitch back there. It’s satisfying that the hard work is paying off and the routine is still great.”
And what’s left for him this season as he continues to audition for a potential roster spot with the Rockies in 2020?
“I just want to get better,” he said. “Throw seven innings. Throw eight innings. It’s fun when you’re playing well.”
It’s also more fun when you know your teammates have your back … and that’s exactly where Gonzalez believes he is.