Friendly competition at Cathedral Catholic in Carmel Valley helped sharpen pitcher for major leagues
The numbers suggest Stephen Gonsalves had to have been pretty well prepared to compete in the lower levels of the minor leagues.
“The first couple of years of rookie ball, it was basically just like playing against my high school guys,” the former Cathedral Catholic pitching standout said of an intensely competitive environment that included elite prospects Alex Jackson of Rancho Bernardo and Corey Oswalt (Madison), among others.
“Just being able to play with tough guys like that all the way through my entire life, that obviously helps for the younger levels” of professional baseball, Gonsalves said.
It apparently helps with the higher levels, too.
The 6-foot-5 190-pound power lefthander, selected by the Minnesota Twins in the fourth round of the 2013 draft out of Cathedral Catholic, is thriving in his first full season of professional baseball.
Gonsalves started the season at low-level Class-A Cedar Rapids (Iowa), where he went 6-1 with a 1.15 ERA. He’s picked up right where he left off after a midseason promotion to advanced Class-A Fort Myers (Fla.) in the Florida State League, going 6-1 with a 2.23 ERA.
He’s struck out a combined 123 batters while allowing 46 walks on the year.
The numbers follow a strikingly consistent pattern that so far has defined Gonsalves’ career.
“I’ve had some good people to work with in the offseason,” Gonsalves said.
Indeed. His offseason training mentors included Stephen Strasburg and James Shields.
Gonsalves met Strasburg during an offseason program for professional baseball players led by fitness guru Todd Durkin. The program’s participants also included Aaron Harang and Chris Young.
Strasburg took an interest in Gonsalves’ development, and the established star continues to mentor his protege.
“(Strasburg) probably looked at me as a younger guy trying to climb through the ranks and he gave me some tips. I learned a lot from (Strasburg),” Gonsalves said, noting some mechanical adjustments and tips on how to manage his workout program.
Strasburg helped correct a flaw in Gonsalves’ delivery, getting him to close his front side and keep his hips in proper alignment. Strasburg saw Gonsalves was opening his hips, which “ended up making me fall over to the third base side and not be so athletic.
“It’s like a golf swing if you think about it. Your hips are the main part (of your swing), and as long as your hips are pointing forward, you’ll stay on line.”
Strasburg also worked with Gonsalves on gripping a split-finger fastball. He also threw a bullpen session with Shields at La Costa Canyon High.
“It was unbelievable,” Gonsalves said of working with some of the best major league pitchers of today’s generation. “I tried to keep my jaw from dropping as much as I could.
“They’re top guys in the MLB, and it’s always been my dream to get to that level.”
Gonsalves has some familiar company in trying to reach that level.
He’s among three recent high-ceiling left-handed pitching prospects who are products of Cathedral Catholic currently playing pro ball. Former No. 1 overall draft pick Brady Aiken (Cleveland Indians) and Daniel Camarena (New York Yankees) are the others.
“It’s very crazy to think about that, but that’s the reason we all we went to Cathedral,” he said, noting the school’s reputation for pushing students to excel in athletics and academics, compared with a college-style experience.
Gonsalves played on one of the most talented high school pitching staffs in state history during his senior year in 2013. The staff had an unheard-of five pitchers who went on to play professional or Division I college ball. Along with Gonsalves and Aiken, the staff featured Michael Martin (UC Irvine), Andrew Wright (USC) and Alex Schick (UC Berkeley).
Gonsalves said the abundance of pitching talent at his high school created a friendly competition that made everybody better.
“Being able to compete with (Aiken) and going back to my freshman year when I was competing with Daniel Camarena, it was good friendly fun,” he said.
He and Aiken, who graduated a year after him, remain close friends, and although he acknowledges that they’re similar pitchers, Gonsalves insists Aiken “has better stuff.”
But Gonsalves may be catching up. Earlier this year, he developed a sharp curveball under the tutelage of Cedar Rapids pitching coach Henry Bonilla, who taught him to “just to spike the curveball.”
Gonsalves had heard that before.
“Brady Aiken tried to teach me that my senior year, but I never got the hang of it until now,” he said. “I guess you can say Brady tried to do it, but it took me a little longer to get it down.”
At 21, he has plenty of time to get the hang of things on his way to the majors. In addition to the curveball, he’s added the splitter to his pitching repertoire this season — a pitch that for now he just uses to get lefties to chase when they’re behind in the count.
But whatever his future holds, he’s committed to staying true to his local roots.
“Always know that I’m the hometown kid who’s working hard to represent San Diego,” he said.
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