Former college teammates face off

Former college teammates face off

The Dodgers’ Tony Gonsolin was scheduled to pitch tonight against reigning National League Cy Young winner Corbin Burnes, his former teammate at Saint Mary’s College. (Colin E. Braley/Associated Press)

One is the National League’s reigning Cy Young Award winner. The other is its current ERA leader.

On Tuesday night at Dodger Stadium, they’ll face off for the first time in their big league careers, with Corbin Burnes and Tony Gonsolin each taking the mound for the second game of this week’s series between the Milwaukee Brewers and the Dodgers.

And at a pizza restaurant on the other side of the city, the man who coached both pitchers in college will be watching with a proud smile.

“I’m so pumped,” said Eric Valenzuela, who coached Gonsolin and Burnes when they were teammates at Saint Mary’s College. “I texted you this morning. It’s super exciting.”

These days, Valenzuela is the coach of the Long Beach State baseball team, which is busy this week welcoming back its players for the first week of school.

Otherwise, he would have been at Chavez Ravine on Tuesday, where the two most successful players of his previous tenure at Saint Mary’s will square off in a long-awaited head-to-head matchup.

“It’ll be fun,” Burnes said Monday. “I’ve obviously played against Tony for four or five years now, but have never had the chance to pitch against him after playing with him in school. It’ll be fun. Looking forward to it.”

Last year, Burnes was baseball’s breakout star on the mound, going 11-5 with a major-league best 2.43 ERA to win the Cy Young Award.

This season, Gonsolin has emerged as one of the majors’ biggest surprises, with an MLB-best 15-1 record and NL-best 2.12 ERA.

“It’s unbelievable, I’m so fired up for these guys,” Valenzuela said. “We’re a split family tonight.”

Valenzuela was central to both pitchers’ origin stories on the mound.

When he was hired as Saint Mary’s coach ahead of the 2014, Gonsolin was a rising sophomore who primarily was a batter during his first year at Saint Mary’s. Burnes was an incoming freshman who, despite having a promising arm, mostly played shortstop in high school.

Neither of them, at the time, seemed destined for star careers as pitchers.

But with Valenzuela trying to rebuild the floundering program’s thin roster — he had inherited only 19 players and about half a dozen pitchers — he needed both to help bolster the team’s pitching staff.

“They were both kind of raw,” Valenzuela said.

But they also had potential.

Burnes had a big arm and gradually dialed in his command to become Saint Mary’s best starter. Gonsolin eventually honed in the natural movement on his pitches to become a weapon out of the bullpen — though still saw himself as a hitter first, serving a in a full-time two-way role as an outfielder as well.

“In college, he was more focused on hitting,” Burnes chuckled. “Pitching was like the fun thing he would do.”

Milwaukee Brewers starter Corbin Burnes pitches against the Pittsburgh Pirates.

Corbin Burnes was picked by the Milwaukee Brewers in the fourth round in 2016, the same year the Dodgers drafted college teammate Tony Gonsolin in the ninth round. (Keith Srakocic/Associated Press)

Together, they led Saint Mary’s to a conference championship and NCAA tournament appearance in 2016.

Then, they were both taken in the top 10 rounds of that year’s draft — Burnes going in the fourth round to the Brewers, Gonsolin in the ninth round to the Dodgers.

“When he put all his focus on the arm care, the routine, on just pitching, I think is when things took off for him,” said Burnes of Gonsolin, who was one of his closest friends at Saint Mary’s. “He’s turned into probably a better pick than the Dodgers were originally thinking they were getting.”

Though their paths didn’t cross much in the minors, Gonsolin and Burnes kept in touch throughout their ascents to the big leagues.

“[Since we’ve debuted], we’ve been keeping track of one another,” Burnes said. “We’re texting throughout the year, just kind of checking in. It’s good.”

Valenzuela stayed close with each player, too.

During the lockout this past winter, Gonsolin went to Long Beach State’s facilities to throw, giving Valenzuela an early hint of the breakout year that’s followed.

“I just saw a lot more confidence,” Valenzuela said. “He knows he belongs there, that he can take that next step.”

During the All-Star Game in Los Angeles last month — in which Burnes and Gonsolin were teammates on the National League roster — Valenzuela connected with Burnes during a party thrown by the pitcher’s agency.

“They’re adults, they’re different than they were as freshmen, but they still have those same personalities,” Valenzuela said. “Corbin talks and he’s outgoing and he’s fun. And then Tony is a little bit more quiet and to himself, in a good way. They’re different. You had to coach them differently. … But they’re special in their own way.”

Still, for as good as they were in college, Valenzuela said he never could have imagined this — to not only see his two former players face off in a big-league game, but doing so as two of baseball’s top pitchers.

“Both of them have had some ups and downs,” Valenzuela said, referencing Burnes’ 8.82 ERA in 2019, and Gonsolin’s struggles with injuries the previous couple of seasons. “But I just love to see their progress. Obviously, Corbin kind of skyrocketed [the last couple of years]. And now, Tony is right in the mix as well. It’s pretty cool.”

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.