Dodgers vs. Brewers: College teammates Gonsolin, Burnes face off

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

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

And at a pizza place across town, the man who coached both pitchers in college will look on with a proud smile.

“I’m so excited,” said Eric Valenzuela, who coached Gonsolin and Burnes when they were teammates at Saint Mary’s College. “I texted them 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 its players back for the first week of school.

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

“It’s going to be fun,” Burnes said Monday. “Obviously I’ve been playing Tony for four or five years now but never had the opportunity to play him after playing with him at school. It will be fun. Look forward to something.”

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

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

“It’s incredible, I’m so excited for these guys,” said Valenzuela. “We’re a divided family tonight.”

Valenzuela played a central role in the origin stories of both pitchers on the mound.

“He probably turned out to be a better pick than the Dodgers originally thought they were going to get.”

— Milwaukee pitcher Corbin Burnes on college teammate Tony Gonsolin

When he was hired as Saint Mary’s coach prior to 2014, Gonsolin was an aspiring sophomore who was primarily a hitter in his freshman year at Saint Mary’s. Burnes was a prospective freshman who, despite having a promising arm, mostly played shortstop in high school.

Neither of them seemed destined for a pitching career at the time.

But as Valenzuela sought to rebuild the faltering program’s thin roster — he’d inherited just 19 players and about a half-dozen pitchers — he needed both to bolster the team’s pitching squad.

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

But they also had potential.

Burnes had a big arm and gradually chose his command to become Saint Mary’s top starter. Gonsolin eventually refined the natural movement on his pitches to become a weapon from the bullpen – although he still saw himself as a hitter first and also served in a full-time two-way role as an outfielder.

“He was more focused on hitting in college,” Burnes said with a smile. “Pitching was like the fun thing he would do.”

Milwaukee Brewers starter Corbin Burnes plays the Pittsburgh Pirates.

Corbin Burnes was a fourth-round draft pick by the Milwaukee Brewers 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 an NCAA tournament appearance in 2016.

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

“When he went all-in on arm care, on the routine, just on the pitching, I think that’s when he really took off,” Burnes said of Gonsolin, who was one of his closest friends at Saint Mary’s. “He probably turned out to be a better pick than the Dodgers originally thought they were going to get.”

Though their paths did not often cross in the minors, Gonsolin and Burnes stayed in touch throughout their rise to the big leagues.

“[Since we’ve debuted], we kept an eye on each other,” Burnes said. “We text all year round, just check in. It is good.”

Valenzuela also remained closely linked with each player.

During last winter’s lockout, Gonsolin went to Long Beach State’s facilities to throw, giving Valenzuela an early indication of the following year of the outbreak.

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

During last month’s All-Star Game in Los Angeles — where Burnes and Gonsolin were teammates on the National League roster — Valenzuela bonded with Burnes during a party hosted by the pitching agency.

“They’re adults, they’re different than freshmen, but they still have the same personalities,” Valenzuela said. “Corbin talks and he’s outgoing and fun. And then Tony’s a little quieter and on his own, in a good way. They’re different. They had to train them differently. … But they are special in their own way.”

Still, as good as they were in college, Valenzuela said he never imagined it would be possible — to not only see his two former players square off in a big league game, but to do so as two of baseball’s best pitchers .

“Both have had some ups and downs,” Valenzuela said, citing Burne’s 8.82 ERA in 2019 and Gonsolin’s injury struggles over the past few seasons. “But I just love seeing their progress. Apparently, Corbin has kind of skyrocketed [the last couple of years]. And now Tony is in the thick of it too. It’s pretty cool.”

Gonsolin defeated Burnes and the Brewers. He gave up a run in five innings to take the win, improving to 16-1. Burnes lasted 3 2/3 innings, gave up seven runs and took the loss. Dodgers vs. Brewers: College teammates Gonsolin, Burnes face off

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