PITTSBURGH (AP) — Nick Gonzales tried to play it cool. He couldn’t. It’d been too long since he homered in a real, live baseball game.
So try as he might, the Pittsburgh Pirates first-round pick a year ago hopped into the dugout after hitting his first home run as a professional — a solo shot off Atlanta’s A.J. Minter in the eighth inning of a 6-3 Grapefruit League win on Wednesday — and broke out in an ear-to-ear grin.
Hard to blame him. The seventh overall selection in the 2020 first-year player draft spent last summer working out at Pittsburgh’s alternate camp in Altoona and a large chunk of the offseason doing drills on his own back in Arizona.
The player who practically begged to “just get thrown out there” had his wish granted on Wednesday night. Though he wasn’t slated to play, just before the bottom of the eighth he was told if the Braves brought in a lefty — a lefty that just so happened to have a 0.83 ERA in 22 games last season for the NL East champions — he’d get a chance.
So Gonzales did a quick study on the iPad, went to the plate, dug in and waited for the fastball he figured was coming from a pitcher who regularly touches the high 90s. When it came whistling down and in at 96 mph, he lined it off the boardwalk fencing in left-center field at LeCom Park.
“I said, ‘OK, if he’s throwing that hard, he’s probably going to throw me a fastball first pitch right off the bench,’” Gonzales said Friday, smiling at the memory. “I was fortunate enough to square it up, and yeah, that was exciting.”
The first of what the Pirates are hoping will eventually be many thrilling moments for the 5-foot-10, 195-pounder who grew up a self-professed baseball junkie in Vail, Arizona. One of the players he admired as a kid was 2013 NL Most Valuable Player Andrew McCutchen.
Gonzales admits he’s trying to emulate McCutchen’s quick, violent swing. The similarities, however, go beyond their stature. Like McCutchen, Gonzales is a first-round pick viewed as one of the linchpins of a franchise-wide reboot. The Pirates took the then 18-year-old McCutchen 11th overall in 2005. By 2009 he was in the majors. By 2010 he was an All-Star.
Though he insists he’s not peeking ahead, Gonzales figures to be on a considerably quicker track. While he played shortstop at New Mexico State — where he hit 39 homers in 128 career games — he figures to be Pittsburgh’s second baseman of the future, a future he stressed he is not obsessing over.
There’s too much to catch up on after getting drafted in the middle of a pandemic. He’s spent most of his first spring training trying to absorb what he can from the big leaguers he is sharing the clubhouse with, particularly third baseman Ke’Bryan Hayes and current shortstop Kevin Newman.
“They’re such pros within their work,” Gonzales said. “They get in, do what they need to do. There’s no messing around. It’s really short, quick to the point and that’s what I like.”
What the Pirates like is the idea of Gonzales providing a dose of power while potentially serving as half of a double-play combination with 20-year-old shortstop prospect Liover Peguero, acquired in the deal that sent center fielder Starling Marte to Arizona in January 2020.
Gonzales expects he and Peguero to become roommates when minor-league camp begins in earnest next month.
“I love having him around, learning from him, the stuff he does really well, Gonzales said. ”I learn from him. I ask him, then he asks me. We’re just learning and building off each other right now.”
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