Eric Valenzuela had a method to his madness in 2016 as the baseball coach at Saint Mary’s College. He allowed his players to grow long hair and beards as long as they handled their business on the field and in the lecture halls.
Tony Gonsolin took full advantage of that freedom. The 2012 Vacaville High School graduate looked then as he does now with the Los Angeles Dodgers – long black hair that looks as if it has never met a comb and a scraggly beard that could make him a distant relative of the “Duck Dynasty” family.
Saint Mary’s started 3-0 in 2016, then lost four of its next six games. Trouble was brewing, so Valenzuela decided to put his foot down and restored order. The hair and beards had to go for the Gaels to stand any chance of salvaging the season. Desperate times call for scissors and shaving cream.
“We weren’t playing good baseball and we had a couple of meltdowns. There were some bad attitudes,” Valenzuela recalled in a recent phone interview. “That was it for me. (The players) had to be as clean shaven as a baby’s butt. It was just like the military. We had to change what we were as a team.”
And change the Gaels did. They won their first West Coast Conference championship and earned an NCAA Regional berth for the first time in school history. Gonsolin had a great deal to do with that. He started 57 of 58 games, including five as a pitcher. The outfielder batted .307, tied for the team lead in home runs with seven and was second in RBI with 40. The right-hander made 18 appearances on the mound and finished 3-3 with a 3.86 ERA.
Saint Mary’s ace in 2016 was Corbin Burnes, who went 9-2 with a 2.48 ERA and 120 strikeouts in 101 2/3 innings. That led to the Milwaukee Brewers selecting Burnes in the fourth round of the 2016 Major League Baseball draft. Gonsolin went in the ninth round – surprisingly for his pitching potential.
Valenzuela might be the only person who was not surprised that the Dodgers took a chance on Gonsolin, especially as a pitcher. “With his work ethic and determination, the sky’s the limit for that guy. He’s super competitive. That’s why he is playing at a higher level,” said Valenzuela, who spent six years at Saint Mary’s and just completed his third season at Long Beach State.
Speaking of Long Beach State, Valenzuela lost his closer on Monday when Vacaville High graduate Devereaux Harrison was drafted in the ninth round by the Toronto Blue Jays. Harrison left Monday for Florida to sign his contract.
Gonsolin and Burnes were eunited as National League teammates in the All-Star Game at Dodger Stadium on Tuesday. Saint Mary’s is the only college with two All-Stars this season, according to the college’s website. Gonsolin is tied for second in the major league with 11 victories and ranks fourth in ERA at 2.02. He has allowed just 55 hits in 93 2/3 innings.
Burnes is 7-4 with a 2.14 ERA after winning the NL Cy Young Award in 2021. Gonsolin and Burnes could have more in common than being former teammates at Saint Mary’s and 2022 All-Stars by the end of this season.
“Little Saint Mary’s could have back-to-back Cy Young Award winners,” Valenzuela said. That might be enough for Valenzuela to finally admit he is surprised.