Ledes from the Land of Enchantment

Isotope hurler, pitching coach go way, way back

Isotopes pitching coach Frank Gonzales, right, has known pitcher JD Hammer (left) and his family since Hammer was roughly 6 years old. (Roberto E. Rosales/Journal)

Frank Gonzales remembers more than a decade ago seeing something special in the right arm of JD Hammer—then his star shortstop at Fort Collins (Colo.) High School.

And since Gonzales had known Hammer since he was about 6-years-old and was close with his family, he was open about his thoughts for the young player’s future.

“His dad and him were like, ‘We don’t think he’s a pitcher,'” recalls Gonzales, now the pitching coach for the Albuquerque Isotopes, where Hammer is now a relief pitcher for the Triple-A affiliate of the Colorado Rockies.

“But my eyes from past experience as a professional pitcher, I was like, ‘Man, I really like your arm. I think there might be something there.’”

Hammer, who picked up the win after picking up two key outs in the eighth inning in Friday’s 12-9 Isotopes win over the Round Rock Express, admits now that maybe his high old high school coach may have been on to something.

“Yeah, I was naive,” admits Hammer, who is now eight years into a professional pitching career that includes two seasons at the Major League level with the Philadelphia Phillies.

“I was one of those kids that was like, ‘Ugh, pitchers aren’t athletes’ And that’s not true at all. … But, yeah. Gonzo was right.”

And don’t think Gonzales, now in the highly unusual role of coaching at the Triple-A level a player he coached in high school a decade ago, doesn’t enjoy relishing in being right way back then.

After Hammer’s college coaches converted him to pitcher, where he starred for two seasons at Navarro (Texas) Junior College and then at Marshall University, he was drafted in the 24th round of the 2016 MLB Draft by the Colorado Rockies.

By then, Gonzales had been hired by the Rockies to coach the organization’s rookie ball affiliate in Grand Junction, Colorado, where Hammer was headed.

“When we drafted him, I said, great. I can’t wait to call his dad and tell him he’s going to pitch,” Gonzales said Friday afternoon with a grin.

This season, Gonzales and Hammer, now 27, are back working together on getting Hammer and that right arm back to the big leagues, where he had a 4.38 ERA over 40 appearances with the Phillies in 2019 and 2021.

“It’s kind of come full circle,” says Hammer, who is 1-0 after picking up the win on Friday and has an ERA of 5.19.

“The baseball world, it’s just such a small community and it’s cool that we ran back into each other and are getting to experience all this.”

The two are still very close—and were even when Hammer was in college and for the seasons he was playing in the Phillies organization. And their relationship now is as close as ever.

“He’s still a coach, you know? And there’s the respect there, but it’s turned more into like relationship where we’re helping each other,” Hammer said. “We talk about stuff a lot. We have a pretty open relationship. I mean, pretty much everyone in the bullpen that I know of has a good relationship with Gonzo.”

While they remember about the past, it’s often more about friends and family back in Colorado more than baseball games of the past.

“I’ve been part of probably 4,500 games over the years,” Gonzales said. “So they get a little fuzzy way back when. JD probably knows what I’m talking about. We remember some of our pro stuff a little more – his start in Grand Junction, his debut with Philadelphia I remember – but mostly, we try and keep as present as we can.”

And the present is about Hammer trying to help the Isotopes win and trying to get himself in a position to get a call-up down the road with the Rockies.

“The fastball is coming out pretty good right now,” Gonzales said of Hammer. “He’ll bump a 96 (mph) here and there, which is fine. The slider is a commanded slider. He got a little bit of a funk the last couple of weeks where he didn’t feel like his slider was as good as it had been, but that happens. …

“But all of this is just really cool. To be the coach that coached him in high school and both of us to be in Triple-A together, I mean that’s got to be pretty low odds, right? It’s been a really cool thing to be a part of.”

‘TOPES SATURDAY: Vs Round Rock

6:35 pm, Isotope Park, 610 AM/95.9 FM

PROMOTION: Adult Isotopes jersey giveaway

PROBABLES: Express RHP AJ Alexy (1-1, 6.48) vs. Isotope’s RHP Zach Neal (4-3, 6.63)

FRIDAY: Wynton Bernard’s two-run homer in the eighth inning broke a tie and the Isotopes won back-to-back games for the first time since May 5 in a 12-9 win over Round Rock.

Bernard and Coco Montes went a combined 4-for-7 with six runs scored and four RBIs.

Colorado Rockies starter Antonio Senzatela, making a rehab start for the Isotopes on Friday, allowed four earned runs off eight hits in four innings pitched.

TRANSACTION: The Colorado Rockies announced on Friday they reinstated RHP Robert Stephenson from the COVID-19 IL and optioned RHP Justin Lawrence to Triple-A Albuquerque.

Box Score: Isotopes 12, Round Rock 9

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