June 29, 2013
By Jon Cooper
Matt Gonzalez enjoys a good laugh as much as anyone, even at his own expense.
Following a freshman season with the obligatory pranks, Gonzalez thought he was in the midsts of another last week when he was told by coaches that he was invited to participate in the prestigious TD Ameritrade Home Run Derby at TD Ameritrade Park Omaha, the home of the College World Series.
“I thought the coaches were kind of messing with me at first,” said the Acworth, Ga., native (Harrison High School). “I only hit three home runs this year. I definitely don’t consider myself a power hitter at all. If I hit a home run I’m guessing it’s a double that went too far.
“But now I’ve let it sink in a little bit and I’m excited.”
Come Wednesday night, Gonzalez, who became the 19th Yellow Jacket named to the Louisville Slugger Freshman All-America Team, after hitting .291 with three homers and 17 RBIs, with a .388 slugging percentage, will be in Omaha, lining up to take his swings with some of the top college power hitters in the nation. It’s the third time in four years that Georgia Tech will have a representative in the competition, as Matt Skole participated in 2010 and Daniel Palka was in it last season.
“It’s a pretty cool group to be with,” said Gonzalez of Skole and Palka, both of whom are now playing professionally — Skole is in the Washington Nationals system, where he was the Minor League Player of the Year in 2012, although he underwent season-ending Tommy John surgery in April, and Palka was recently selected by the Arizona Diamondbacks and is off to a great start in Rookie League competition.
Palka actually served as a mentor to Gonzalez during the season, obviously, long before there was any thought of Gonzalez competing in the event.
“Daniel was my roommate when we traveled so I kind of was able to pick his brain a little bit and find out some information from him,” he said. “He said just go up there and relax and have fun. I was asking him about it because I thought it was pretty cool. I thought it would be cool to be in but I never even had a thought about being in it.”
The competition, which will be shown on ESPN Thursday at 8 p.m., is three rounds in duration and gives each hitter 10 outs — balls that don’t clear the fence — then a “bonus ball” worth two points. It can be grueling but Gonzalez feels he’s been prepared physically.
“My dad’s always been a BP thrower for me when I was younger and he used to throw ball after ball to me,” he said. ‘So I’m pretty used to swinging the bat a lot of times in a row.”
Mentally, he’s not going to change his swing.
“Up here (in Cape Cod) I’m trying to hit the ball to right field and always hit line drives. If I hit a home run in the Home Run Derby then great, but I’m not going to change my swing for it,” he said. “I always hear that people don’t want to do the home run derby because they don’t want to mess up their swing. I’m sure there’s something to it but I’m sure if I just stay going to right field in BP I can take a couple of swings and try to hit the ball out at the home run derby. If I keep my mind set toward right field it won’t mess up my swing.”
Home Run Derby is uncharted waters for Gonzalez, who said the closest he’s come is friendly competition with teammates in batting practice. That batting practice experience could work to his advantage, as Georgia Tech volunteer assistant coach Wally Crancer will be his pitcher in Omaha.
“He’s been a great hitting coach for me this past year and he’s thrown a lot of BP to me before games and before practice,” said Gonzalez. “He’s a really great BP thrower. He leaves it up and in for me. He knows my swing as good as I do. So I feel like he’ll know where to throw me.”
Gonzalez will play his weekend slate of games for the Bourne Braves then leave Cape Cod for Omaha on Tuesday, where he will meet up with his dad, Alex, who played collegiately at West Florida, and Bill Leseman, a close family friend, who will serve as a morale support.
He hasn’t looked too closely at the competition nor has he spent too much time picturing what the event will be like. He is trying to keep a low-key approach.
“I just kind of tell myself I just need to take a deep breath and relax and have fun,” he said. “Don’t take it too seriously. Just go out there and it’s going to be a great experience.”