PIKESVILLE, Md. — Will Gardner came to Maryland Eastern Shore last August and inherited a team that was 17-34 the previous season. That was a good year by recent standards.
In 2004 and 2005, the Hawks combined for only nine overall wins and a mere one in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference.
Because he arrived so late ï¿½ he had been an assistant at Delaware State ï¿½ there was little time to spend on recruiting. He said that by that time, many coaches were already recruiting players for the 2008 season.
Gardner went looking for anyone he could find, hoping that some Division I-caliber players remained undecided or had slipped through the cracks.
From his days at Delaware State, he recalled seeing a young man from Prince Georgeï¿½s Community College in Maryland at a JUCO showcase. At the time, he said, Delaware State had a glut of outfielders, so the young man, Joel Gonzalez, didnï¿½t fit into the plans.
ï¿½When I took the (UMES) job in August, I had a chance to make a couple quick phone calls to ask about a couple of guys who I had recruited at Delaware State who hadnï¿½t made commitments,ï¿½ said Gardner.
He found out that Gonzalez was free. Gonzalez was still in the process of completing his associateï¿½s degree in the fall when Gardner contacted him.
ï¿½I think thatï¿½s one of the things that may have scared some recruiters away,ï¿½ said Gardner.
But he kept Gonzalez on his radar, and when Gonzalez completed his required course hours in the winter, he agreed to join the Hawks.
ï¿½Iï¿½m very pleased,ï¿½ said Gonzalez, who entered Tuesday nightï¿½s action ranked 12th in the nation with a .442 batting average. ï¿½Iï¿½m appreciative of where Iï¿½m at now. Itï¿½s rare for a JC player to play Division I ball for academic reasons.
ï¿½Itï¿½s a big accomplishment. Coming from Puerto Rico (my parents) didnï¿½t have that same opportunity. Iï¿½m trying to do everything I can while Iï¿½m young.ï¿½
Gonzalez was born to play baseball. His father, David, was signed as an 18-year-old free agent by the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1972. He spent a short time in the Piratesï¿½ system, then hooked on with the St. Louis Cardinals organization. After being released, he played winter ball in his native Puerto Rico with the likes of long-time Houston Astros great Jose Cruz and Sandy Alomar.
ï¿½My father, I kind of looked up to him growing up,ï¿½ said Gonzalez. ï¿½He had a talent for baseball, and it was neat to have that bond and share the same thing. He just kind of showed me the way and showed me the ropes.ï¿½
Father, obviously, knew best.
In his first year at Prince Georgeï¿½s Community College, he led the National Junior College Athletic Association Division II with a .561 batting average. The following year, he hit .450.
Gonzalez, 6-feet, 185 pounds, knew that playing Division I competition would be much tougher, but he was confident he could be successful. He just didnï¿½t realize how successful.
ï¿½I knew I could be somewhat successful, but I wasnï¿½t 100 percent sure,ï¿½ he admitted. ï¿½I didnï¿½t come into this program knowing I was going to be on top of things.
ï¿½I didnï¿½t really know that I was one of the top hitters in the nation until one of my teammates said something. I knew I was putting up good numbers, but not that I was one of the top hitters in the nation.ï¿½
Gonzalez has proven to be an effective hitter both against lefties (.469) and righties (.420). And heï¿½s even better in the clutch. Heï¿½s hitting .517 with runners on base, .525 with runners in scoring position, .514 with two outs and has a team-high 12 two-out RBIs.
ï¿½Joel is obviously one of the better hitters in the conference,ï¿½ said Gardner. ï¿½He tries to stay within himself. He works the count pretty well. Early in the season, he was chasing too many breaking pitches away. Now, heï¿½s more patient”.
“He could put up more power numbers, but he just stays within himself. Heï¿½s extremely focused. When he comes into that zone in the batterï¿½s box, he doesnï¿½t buy into anything else thatï¿½s going on. Heï¿½s just at another level than a lot of our players right now.ï¿½
ï¿½Every at bat, I try to keep the same mindset and the same motives,ï¿½ said Gonzalez, an exercise science major. ï¿½I just go looking for my pitch. I try to be calm, keep my eyes open and be relaxed. Iï¿½m looking to get on base. Base hits and walks. Every at bat is the most important to me.ï¿½
Gonzalez is no slouch in the field either. Heï¿½s a utility man in every sense of the word, having played all three outfield positions ï¿½ primarily left field ï¿½ catcher and third base this season. And heï¿½s put up a respectable .968 fielding percentage through it all.
Heï¿½s played no small part in helping the Hawks become more competitive. The teamï¿½s current 9-33 record (5-10 in the MEAC) is a bit deceiving. Eight of the Hawksï¿½ losses have been by one run, and four more were by two runs.
On Tuesday, UMES defeated George Washington 5-3.
ï¿½Weï¿½ve been in the majority of our games,ï¿½ said Gardner. ï¿½Weï¿½re playing some competitive games against some competitive programs.ï¿½
Gonzalezï¿½s contributions to that newfound competitiveness have not gone unnoticed. Gardner said he has had some inquiries from professional scouts, and there is a real possibility that Gonzalez will be drafted in June.
Gardner recognizes the double-edged sword that his star player presents.
ï¿½I knew that (the potential for Gonzalez to be drafted) coming in,ï¿½ said Gardner. ï¿½But I knew we needed some help. Weï¿½re very young and weï¿½re very thin. Heï¿½s certainly been a great asset. He has been able to provide some leadership and experience.
ï¿½And if he does get drafted, itï¿½s a plus for us because it would show that we can get guys to the next level.ï¿½
For his part, Gonzalez is both excited and humbled by the prospect of getting drafted. So, what if his name is called in June?
ï¿½First, Iï¿½d just have to thank God for giving me the opportunity. Iï¿½ll see if (going pro) is the right decision, go to my parents, go to my coach. The idea of making it to the big leagues ï¿½ I absolutely want to do it.
ï¿½Iï¿½m just going to be prepared, be humble. I donï¿½t want to get my hopes up. Iï¿½m not pressuring myself. If it doesnï¿½t happen, I wonï¿½t be upset.ï¿½
Heï¿½ll just keep on hitting.