EDINBURG — When starting right fielder Casey Danley went down to injury during the third game of the season, UTRGV coach Manny Mantrana began searching his roster for a fourth outfielder.
Mantrana already had a plan for a new starter, but he needed to find depth, just in case of emergency. So, he sent sophomore shortstop Anthony Gomez into the outfield to catch a few fly balls during practice. Right away, Manatrana said, he could tell Gomez was a natural.
“Some guys, when you make the move from infield to outfield, they don’t get really good jumps on the ball,” Mantrana said. “And then, when they get to the ball, they look a little shaky with the glove. With Anthony, he gets really good jumps on balls. And when he gets to them, it’s like he’s been playing outfield his whole life.”
Quite the contrary, Gomez doesn’t even remember the last time he played outfield. Maybe it was sixth grade, he said.
Regardless, he’s found success in the role. He went from the emergency option, to part of a platoon, to now starting UTRGV’s past eight games entering a matchup with Northern Colorado at 7 tonight at UTRGV Baseball Stadium. Along the way, the sophomore from Pembroke Pines, Florida, has raised his batting average from .218 last year to .326 this year — a figure that ranks second among the Vaqueros’ regulars.
“It’s actually been pretty cool, because I just wanted to play,” Gomez said of transitioning to the outfield. “I just did whatever I could and tried to adapt to it the best I can. It was definitely fun, because it’s something new and exciting. You get to learn something new. It brought a little more fire to when I come to practice.”
Gomez said he entered the program last year expecting to start and play a major role on the infield before hitting just .218 without an extra-base hit in 29 games, including 15 starts.
Mantrana said the freshman needed time to adjust to Division I pitching and to develop strength in a college weightlifting program. Gomez added that getting consistent at-bats over the summer helped him immensely. He also said he worked with a personal trainer to become faster and even switched up little things like his pregame stretching routine. All the while, he’s continued to progress mentally.
“I wouldn’t say I’m completely mature, but I’m working my way up there,” Gomez said. “Now, I’m starting to know it’s OK if you fail, you have to keep going. It’s better to make a mistake going hard than making a mistake being timid.”
Gomez said he brings fire and “a little spice” to UTRGV. He’s also brought a .326 average, .438 slugging percentage, eight RBIs and 15 runs. In the outfield, he’s made two errors in 45 chances. Even during stretches when he’s gone a couple weeks between starts, Gomez said he never worried or wavered from his routine. Mantrana tells all his players before the season that they have to accept their role, and Gomez has always done so.
“He’s a mentally tough kid,” Mantrana said. “He practices hard, and he has a good time practicing. He loves to play. That’s something you can’t teach as a coach, but he’s one of the guys that loves practicing hard. Everything he does in practice is with a purpose.”
All of the Vaqueros will be playing with extra purpose this week. Only six games remain in the regular season, and a berth in the WAC Tournament is still hanging in the balance. UTRGV (25-23, 6-12 WAC) is tied with Seattle U in the race for the sixth and final seed in the WAC Tournament. Northern Colorado (16-27, 5-13) is also in the hunt but ranks last out of eight postseason-eligible teams.
Coming off an open weekend, Mantrana said his team is well aware of the stakes.
“You have to play the game the same, but they know,” Mantrana said. “They know where we’re at and what we have to do.”