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Isotopes pitching coach Frank Gonzales discusses the unique challenges of working simultaneously with starters and relievers

Gonzales has spent the last decade as a coach in the Rockies system and made his Triple-A debut this year

It’s no secret that the Pacific Coast League is a notoriously hitter-friendly league. And Rio Grande Credit Union Field at Isotopes Park in Albuquerque is especially hitter-friendly and therefore pitcher-unfriendly. But Frank Gonzales has been put in charge of navigating that challenge and getting Rockies pitching prospects — starters and relievers — ready for the big leagues.

Gonzales is in his 10th year with the Rockies, and this is his first year with the Isotopes. Previously, he has served as pitching coach of the Double-A Hartford Yard Goats (2021) and Short-Season Tri-City Dust Devils (2013-14), supervisor of development at High-A Lancaster (2018-19), and manager of the Rookie Level Grand Junction Rockies (2016-17) and Short-Season Boise Hawks (2015). So far, he’s just soaking it all in at Triple-A as he was reunited with Warren Schaeffer.

“I’ve known Warren Schaeffer since the time I’ve been [in the organization],” Gonzales said. “We signed the same year and when you get to work with somebody you’ve been around for that long and then do it together at the highest level that you can in the minor leagues, it’s really cool.”

Gonzales was also very excited about the Isotopes staff and players, who saw some changes in the offseason.

“[Bench coach] Pedro Lopez, Phil [Bailey] our strength coach, and getting over to the local Mr. [Jordan] Pacheco – what an honor to be able to work with these guys and be part of it,” he continued. “And then we surround ourselves with good guys, character guys, baseball players that just want to get better every day and hopefully help our big club win.”

Part of Gonzales’ job is to work with both starters and relievers, which is a unique challenge for minor league coaches. But since Gonzales spent time playing both positions, he can help both groups in their own unique ways.

“I have a good grasp of what it takes to start a game — to have a routine, to know what your week looks like before you start again. I did that for a long time,” Gonzales said. “And then on the reliever side, every night you’re trying to prepare to go and they’ve got to limit how much they throw at times and yet be ready to execute when they get on the mound so they still have to practice and work on their delivery.

“Starters are kind of like a marathon runner and relievers are a little more like a sprinter,” he continued, “so we train them that way and we just try and get the best version out of what they are every day we can.”

Like the Rockies, the Isotopes play at the highest-elevation stadium in their league. RGCU Field sits at 5,100 feet — 600 feet higher than the second-highest (Greater Nevada Field in Reno, home of the Diamondbacks’ Triple-A Reno Aces). That gives Rockies’ prospects a good sample of what they might have to deal with when they make the majors.

But “you’ve got to make good pitches,” Gonzales said. “You’ve got to execute with nobody on base and you really have to execute with guys on base. The ground ball is our friend... and that’s part of how I want guys to operate when they’re here so they can use those tools when they get to [the big leagues].”

Another challenge facing Gonzales is keeping guys out of their own heads.

“I can see guys compress herep a little bit,” he said. “They want to do well here because they feel like they’re knocking on the door and I think that their emotions can get a little revved up. Part of my development as a coach has been just to keep at an even keel — stay relaxed, not get caught up in the moment — and then be able to communicate clearly and calmly with a plan that it’s going to be fine.”

They are given plenty of things to do in between starts to keep them going, but it’s still a balancing act.

“The routine thing for the starter is crucial,” Gonzales said. “They throw every day, they get mound work at least once or twice between starts. And with the relievers, we just can’t overuse guys. We’ve got to balance it and somehow you feel like you have a ton of guys down there one night and then something happens and the next night you’re going ‘oh my gosh, we’re short!’ So it’s a really competitive game. Every day is a different creature at the end of the day.”

At the end of the day, though, it’s always about relationships with Gonzales.

“That’s the number one for me,” he said, “just learning how to communicate with everybody’s personality. Waking up every day and knowing that somebody is going to be going through something — I’m going to be feeling this way, they’re going to be feeling that way but we’re still a group. We’re still a unit and just trying to get everybody to feel like we have a chance to compete and a win is a great byproduct of that. But really the relationships with the guys are just the best part of my day.”