When I met Dom Nunez (PuRP No. 21) he was still beaming over a 3-run moonshot of a home run that brought both the crowd and his teammates to their feet. He had been struggling lately to have his solid contact skill result in hits and finally came around on one and hit it where the bad-guys couldn't catch it.
"That one felt really good." He told me. "I love being on this team, what camaraderie," he says. That can be important when you are in the middle of a slump.
When I spoke with Zach Jemiola about Dom Nunez he told me that he felt like Dom got a bit of a slow start coming in to professional ball in Grand Junction maybe because, "he has always been a catcher," Jemiola mentioned, "but has really seemed to settle in lately."
In the great game that Jemiola had pitched just the day before, his only blemish (a soft line drive single to right field) could have been erased in my view had Dom Nunez made a better play on a high hopper to second and turned the double play. Had he done so, the run would never have scored. That being said, a few nights later he would make two fantastic plays at second and hit the aforementioned monster home run.
I asked him about moving from catcher to middle infield and he admitted it had been a bit of an adjustment but made it clear that he not only welcomes the move but that he now considers himself a middle infielder. "I'll play anywhere they want me but that's what I was drafted as," he said. He told me he feels like he is getting more comfortable all the time with second base, short stop, and even third. Ultimately, from my limited sample size eye-test, he looked like the kind of defender who won't cost you much anywhere and can occasionally give you a great play but may not be considered elite.
I don't doubt for a second though that his work ethic will lead him toward constant improvement in these areas.
The part of his game that did seem elite to me already was his plate discipline. The entire time I was in Grand Junction I'm not sure I saw him swing at a single ball. He also never seemed to be out on his front foot or really off-balance in any way at the plate. When I asked him about this in particular, a big smile came over his face. He confirmed that his patience and pitch recognition is something he sees as a valuable part of him game. "I've always had a great eye," he says.
Dom Nunez strikes me as having the potential to be a rich man's Johnny Herrera (or maybe a Ben Zobrist type.) He has a keen eye and the ability to make regular contact with the baseball, usually hitting it hard, and he should be valuable at multiple positions. Also, like Herrera, he seems to be an all-around great guy.
Dom is the type of cat you want on your team. He has a non-assuming personality that speaks volumes. He clearly thinks hard about the game of baseball and ways he can improve. When I asked him about his teammates he went through a good long list of guys he enjoys being around and playing baseball with. It may be only recently official, but Dom Nunez is a professional baseball player.
Zach Jemiola had pitched an absolute gem just 24 hours before he told me that prior to doing so he hadn't been feeling well. I can't imagine being sick and getting ready to pitch a professional baseball game in 100 degree heat. I might have responded to that by throwing up. Zach Jemiola responded to it with this thought he shared with me, "I sometimes like it when I don't feel good or don't have my best stuff because then I want to prove I can beat these guys with my bad stuff."
And he did. Zach pitched 7 innings of one hit, one run baseball. And really, he was better than that. The hit was on a pitch where the batter was way out on his front foot. "I had that guy," Zach told me. Fooled by the pitch, hit on a prayer. When I mention he was that close to a no-hitter, Zach winces a little and smiles and laughs, "that's baseball."
More important than the stat line, I told him, was the fact that he really seemed to have the off-speed pitches working well, early in counts, and for strikes. I asked if that was something he had consciously been working on. "Definitely. I'm trying to pitch more than just throw." When I mentioned that he was sitting on 89 MPH he has quick to correct me that their guns had him at 92. I was going off the stadium readouts, and this discrepancy was seconded later when I mentioned to Carlos Estevez that he was sitting on 94 and he corrected me to 97.
Our conversation around velocity revealed that he can still hit 95 when he really reaches back and that he used to sit there in high school with the ability to dial it up even more. "But that was overthrowing every time. I'm trying to pitch more and throw less," he says. He then took the liberty of offering a caricature of himself pitching wildly and with reckless abandon in his younger days. "I want to be smart about it now."
Zach is a student of the game. We talked about some other hard throwing pitchers (including Ubaldo Jimenez) who may have overthrown for too long without necessarily learning how to really pitch.
I had a behind-the-plate view of his pitching ability a day earlier. There were two particular pitches that best exemplified how Zach was, and possibly may continue to be, successful. The first was a front-door slider to a right-handed batter that started at his hip and moved just over the inside part of the strike zone at 79 (or I guess 82) MPH. The second, was a back-up change that started away from a righty and just caught the outside corner at the last possible moment. Both pitches were not swung at, both were for strike one, and both set up eventual strikeouts.
Zach Jemiola is also that kind of ballplayer with all the extra skills that if the pitching results are good enough, he will be a star. It is easy to immediately sense his media skills, conversation ability, and high character. We talked about not thinking about career progression beyond his next start, but it's easy to see the fire that burns inside him. "Every one wants it," he says, "if they told you differently they would be lying." Of course he wants to pitch well and get called up, but you can't get ahead of yourself, and he knows that.
Zach shared some thoughts on Dom Nunez (see above) and on how impressed he has been with how quickly Ryan McMahon seems to have adjusted to professional baseball. But he also mentions that Zach Osborn, an undersized (5'6, 170) infielder, is a symbol of the heart of this team. "He works hard every day, hustles in the field, and sets an example." This is a team, Zach tells me, that has rules in place to pull players directly out of the game if they don't make their time to first base. Nothing is valued more at Rookie ball Grand Junction than playing hard.
As a last note on his character, I will just say that I found it compelling that once I had no further questions, Zach was fine to hang out and just talk baseball with me for a minute. He started to walk back to the locker-room a couple of times but stopped to ask me something or another including finally asking what my plans were for the rest of the day. He asked who else I wanted to talk to and made sure I would stick around for that day's game.
From then on, every time he walked past me talking with one of his teammates for this piece, or just in general around the park, he would give a wave and a nod or even a quick word to check in on how I was doing. Johnathan Gray would operate in the exact same fashion throughout the week, which just serves as another example of the ego-less attitude that permeates this team.
I teased a couple of times that I would have a quick note from Dan O'Dowd in this piece, and I wasn't underselling. It will be a very quick word so I won't build it up as though I have some big reveal.
After almost literally running into him, Dan O'Dowd recognized that I was doing a double-take (wait, aren't you...?) so he kindly extended his hand for a shake and headed on his way. I was able to quickly blurt out something about writing for Purple Row and being impressed with the team he had built here in Grand Junction. He nodded and moved on his way. He was, after all, at work.
I was determined not to bother or bombard him, as it was clear he was busy, but it just so happened that on my way back from talking with more of the players he was passing by again. I was feeling a deeper understanding of something about the Rockies that I had been hearing for years; we draft character. Knowing that this was a kind of mantra, and feeling knee deep in high class from each guy I had talked to, I felt the time was appropriate to tell Mr. O'Dowd that I thought he had assembled a classy group of young men.
Not hearing me clearly he decided to head on over my way and asked if I would repeat myself. "Classy group of ballplayers, sir," I said. Without missing a beat he fired back, "and they can play too."
He then headed right back to work, but I thought I had one more observation he might appreciate. He was a few steps away and I said, "I think Zach Jemiola could be a special player." He stopped. Turned around. Looked me right in the eyes and said, "so do I."
Check back tomorrow for Part 3 and my conversations with Ryan McMahon and Jordan Patterson.