Sometimes the maturation process is a subtle thing. It wasn't so subtle for Luis Gonzalez, whose pronounced growth in several obvious ways over the last three years at New Mexico has helped turn him into one of college baseball's best hitters and most valuable players.
For starters, there's Gonzalez's growth as a hitter. He could always swing the bat, and he hit a very respectable .299 with a .496 slugging percentage as a freshman. But he didn't really take off until changing his mental approach - and moving from the 3-hole to the leadoff spot - as a sophomore, when he led the Lobos with a .381 batting average and 21 doubles.
"Kids want to be somebody they're not sometimes. His freshman year he hit a lot of balls up the chute, trying to max-effort a home run, cut it off, lift it, all that stuff," New Mexico coach Ray Birmingham said. "I talked him into the mental side of it: 'Dude, lead the country in doubles, this will all play out for you.' So that's his goal: have a high batting average, lead the country in doubles. Being in the leadoff spot helps him with that. Putting him in the 3-hole as a freshman was a mistake. Now he hits like a leadoff hitter, for average, and he still hits home runs. He's focused on who he should be."
Gonzalez has taken another step forward as a junior, getting off to a torrid start to help the Lobos jump out to an 11-3 record. Through 14 games, Gonzalez ranks seventh in the nation in batting (.491), eighth in doubles (nine) and 11th in slugging percentage (.842). He walked significantly more than he struck out in each of his first two seasons, and it's been more of the same so far this spring - he has 14 walks and six strikeouts, giving him a remarkable 80-45 BB-K mark in his career. He also has three homers in just 57 at-bats - half of last year's homer total (six) in 252 at-bats. In short - Gonzalez is a complete hitter and an extraordinarily tough out.
"He doesn't have that great big body a lot of tater hitters have, but he has some juice. But he can handle a bat, man. He can handle a count," Birmingham said. "We call it dancing with a pitcher, and he can dance with that guy a little bit. He understands enough to know what he's doing pitch by pitch. Not many guys do that."
Gonzalez, a 6-foot, 185-pound lefthanded-hitter, is more than just a bat - much more. He's also an above-average runner who puts his speed to use in center field and on the basepaths, where he's 26-for-28 in career stolen base attempts. It's hard to teach instincts, and Gonzalez has instincts in spades.
"He's a great outfielder, gets great jumps, makes great plays from the outfield. He can throw you out from center field, he can steal bases, he can hit home runs, he can spray the ball around the field, he can drag bunt. He's a kid. You don't do much with him, you just tell him a few things here and there as he grows, and watch him play. He's smart. He wasn't a great student, but now he's a great student."
And that's a second key marker of Gonzalez's maturation process. Birmingham said when Gonzalez arrived at UNM from high school in Tucson, he was a "red-flag student," which meant the Lobos put him through a more intensive academic support program to help him improve in the classroom. Now, Birmingham says, he's a 3.0 student who is serious about his grades. "Truly, that's what education is about - giving you maturity and structure and hopes and dreams, and that's what he's doing," Birmingham said. "He's turning into a man."
The third major indicator of Gonzalez's growth is the way he has embraced his role as a pitcher, too. Make no mistake - Gonzalez wants to be a big league outfielder, and earlier in his career he wasn't really interested in pitching. He still logged 71 innings over his first two seasons, but he wasn't truly invested in that part of his game.
"He didn't really have a lot of passion for pitching, but he has a lot of passion for pitching now," Birmingham said. "He's a 92 mph lefty, he pitched well the last time out against San Jose. He's now taking it seriously because he wants to get this team to Omaha. He's really pitching now … His command of the breaking ball has gotten better, his changeup's gotten better, and he's locating down in the zone more - before, he just threw it up there. He's taking it more serious, and that's good for us."
The numbers on the mound aren't great yet - he has a 5.68 ERA in 12.2 innings this year and a 5.81 ERA for his career - but Gonzalez is clearly making progress, and the Lobos need him to help shore up the rotation after ace Tyler Stevens. He battled through five innings Sunday against San Jose State, scattering 10 hits but allowing just two runs.
Of course, even if Gonzalez didn't pitch at all, his special bat and sterling defense would make him one of the best players in the country. The pitching is almost a bonus. And his increased dedication to it is just one more sign of his growth, which continued last summer when he got a taste of action for USA Baseball's Collegiate National Team. He appeared in three games as a position player and went 1-for-2, and he threw one scoreless inning off the mound at Angel Stadium, touching 92 mph and flashing a good tight breaking ball.
"The USA team always benefits every player," Birmingham said. "It did benefit him. It made him see a new level of play and people, he realized he could be with them."
Indeed, Gonzalez has proven he belongs in any discussion of the best players in college baseball.
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