Gonzalez finds a baseball home in the Canyon

CANYON—Wherever he has gone, there has always been something about the way Billy Gonzalez threw a baseball that made coaches see his potential and feel like they needed to be around it.

His near perfect game a couple of months ago is proof of that.

Gonzalez has found another nesting place, this time on the south plains in the panhandle of Texas at West Texas State A&M in Canyon.

Finding himself in the right place at the right time, the West Texas baseball program has experienced a series of firsts and a resurgence of sorts and the 2009 Rockdale High School graduate is grateful to have the chance to be a part of it.

Despite a rather pedestrian 8-7 pitching mark in three years of varsity baseball at Rockdale High School, Temple College coach Craig McMurtry looked beyond the numbers and saw something he liked about the righthander.

“I saw Billy pitch in high school and was impressed with his curveball the very first time I watched him,” said McMurtry, who pitched in the major leagues for over a decade. “He had good command of his pitches and had enough velocity and movement on his fastball to pique my interest.

Gonazlez took a perfect game into the seventh inning against Abilene Christian on April 5, before losing it on a freak play. Below left, at Temple College. Right, at Rockdale. Gonazlez took a perfect game into the seventh inning against Abilene Christian on April 5, before losing it on a freak play. Below left, at Temple College. Right, at Rockdale. “After he came here to Temple College he gained a little more velocity and he started throwing a changeup that became an effective pitch for him. The biggest thing with Billy was that he could throw his curve at any time.”

“He helped me fix the little things,” Gonzalez said. “How to start hitters off. And yes, the changeup made a huge difference. I learned a lot.”

“He did a nice job for us here at TC and we were lucky to have him,” McMurtry said.

Gonzalez’ time at Temple, especially under the tutelage of a polished pro like McMurtry was invaluable.

The Leopards earned a trip to the regional tournament in Gonzalez’ sophomore season and after seeing him pitch for a couple of innings in that tournament and then a visit with a friend to the campus, new West Texas skipper Matt Vanderburg offered him a spot on the Buffalo roster and Gonzalez was set up for his next level of play.

His buddy he made the trip with, Jarvis Smith from Waco, is also on the roster as an outfielder and was one of the Buffaloes top hitters.

Vanderburg was hugely successful at nearby Clarendon Community College and it appears he brought that attitude with him to Canyon.

“I definitely came here at the right time,” Gonzalez said. “We are getting better every year.”

The Buffaloes, who share the Lone Star Conference with Incarnate Word, Angelo State Eastern New Mexico, Texas A&M Kingsville and Abilene Christian returned to the conference tournament in 2012 for the first time since 2006 and just the third time in school history.

They dropped their first two contests in the tournament to finish 29-18 and just missing out on winning 30 games in back-to-back seasons.

The 29 wins is the fourth-best in school history.

Gonzalez and two fellow hurlers all broke the team’s earned run average mark.

Back to the near-miss.

On April 5, in the second game of a double header, Gonzalez nearly tossed a perfect game at Abilene Christian and took it into the top of the seventh.

The first batter he faced in the bottom of the seventh inning reached base on a fielding error, ending the bid for the perfect game.

Abilene Christian’s next batter followed with a single through the right side, breaking up the no-hitter as well.

The single hit that was awarded, was on a ground ball towards second base, but the ball hit the runner.

The runner was called out on the play, but NCAA rules states that the hitter receives a hit in that situation.

“It was a great experience,” he said. “It would have been neat to have the perfect game or the no hitter, because something like that rarely happens. I don’t remember ever getting that close before. A real bummer. I didn’t get it but that’s alright.”

The near-miss pushed Gonzalez’ record to 5-0 on the year and after consecutive losses, he finished up with a 6-2 record (second best on the team) and a 3.55 earned run average.

While the 6-foot, 190- pounder can consistently hit 88-90 mile per hour, he learned quickly that it’s not necessarily the physical gifts that bring you success.

“You have to learn to pitch a lot smarter. Learn how to pitch in certain situations. You just can’t go out there and throw 90. Hitters are better each level you reach.”

Gonzalez had a blast playing in Iowa’s MINK (Missouri, Iowa, Nebraska, Kansas) League last summer, but is going to hang out in Rockdale this summer and try to return to school in top condition.

He’s still trying to adjust to Canyon’s barren climate.

“It’s different,” he said. “Most days it’s always windy. You go to the ballpark and its blowing 20 miles per hour straight out into right field and I’m thinking what did I get myself into?”

West Texas A&M, which used to be known as West Texas State, is a university of 7,000 students that participates in Division II in athletics.

While the school has produced three professional baseball players at the major league level, it is more prolific in turning out professional wrestlers.

Included are hall-of-famers Dusty Rhodes, Blackjack Mulligan, Bruiser Brody and Ted Biase, the “Million Dollar Man”.

Offbeat character actor French Stewart (“Third Rock From The Sun”) is also an alumnus.

West Texas’ most famous alumnus is Chicago native Maurice Cheeks, who played point guard in the NBA for 15 years. he has also been a head coach in the NBA.

Speaking of famous alumni, it wasn’t lost on Gonzalez that the major league draft was held this week.

That’s the next step.

“Of course I would love to get drafted,” he said. “But, if it doesn’t happen, I’ll go back to work and get better so I can get drafted.”

Or if that one coach, sees that one thing special...

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