By JOHN BLANCHETTE
Special to GoZags.com

When it's useful, Marco Gonzales has no problem embracing the underdog persona.

By baseball standards, he's small for a pitcher, a self-made hitter, not blessed with great speed. He was, by his own evaluation, a below-the-radar college recruit, so his remarkable achievements in two years at Gonzaga are outsized by comparison.

But this summer, he stepped off a bus in Cuba and looked around - and had the whole notion of underdog redefined for him.

He was there as part of USA Baseball's Collegiate National Team, and by summer's end he would lead it to the bronze medal at the prestigious Honkbal Week tournament in the Netherlands and be honored with its Best Pitcher award.

But before that, there was a five-day series in Havana against Cuba's national team, a virtual baseball fiesta at Estadio Latinoamericano, the island nation's Yankee Stadium. Teams from the two countries had not met outside a tournament setting in 16 years and it was a spectacle in every way. As many as 5,000 Cubans would already be at the ballpark when Team USA arrived for batting practice, and eventually a Jumbotron was procured to blast out music videos for singing and dancing between innings.

It was against this backdrop, three or four days into the series, that Gonzales had his epiphany.

"The bus pulls up outside the stadium and we get off, and in the parking lot there are kids - barefoot, no shirts, playing baseball with rocks and sticks," he recalled. "They might have had one ball of some kind, but no gloves or bats, just a stick. And they're having the greatest time!

"You wouldn't ever see anything like that here."

Any number of thoughts raced through Gonzales' head, but they eventually merged into one.

"We're getting off a luxury bus in new gear, and here are these kids with a stick in a dirt lot having the time of their lives," he said. "You're there with 'USA' on your chest with a chance to represent your country, and you're reminded that nothing you've experienced is truly that bad because you're seeing people dealing with worse and doing it with a smile.

"We saw people in the street, selling anything they had, all their possessions, for a little money, and being grateful for that alone. It was just so humbling."

And the baseball experience wasn't half bad, either.

But that's the constant thread running through Gonzales' stay at Gonzaga.

Few Bulldogs have had an impact so instant and pronounced as Gonzales, who enters his junior year already one of the most decorated players in the program's history.

A freshman All-American and the West Coast Conference's co-Player of the Year his first season, the two-way sensation from Fort Collins, Colo., saw the success only snowball as a sophomore. He was the WCC's Pitcher of the Year for a second straight season, made a handful of All-America lists (including Baseball America's first team) and was one of three finalists for the College Baseball Hall of Fame's John Olerud Two-Way Player award. At summer's end, he was pegged as the No. 7 prospect from Team USA by perfectgame.org.

But whatever hardware he accrued, Gonzales obviously treasures the experiences of his baseball summer most of all.

That began in earnest when Team USA touched down in Havana in early July.

An American collegiate team had not played on the island since 1993, and Gonzales discovered that he and his teammates "were instant celebrities, to some extent.

"People saw 'USA' and their eyes lit up," he said. "To be able to connect with these people through baseball was really something special."

And so was the competition.

Cuba's national team is an institution, filled with veterans. Gonzales estimated the average age at 30, and noted that the country's regular catcher is 42.

"He's been on the team for 18 years," he said. "That's basically as long as I've been alive."

That level of experience, combined with exceptional skill, can be difficult to beat. Gonzales got one start on the mound in the five-game series, and left in the seventh inning with a 6-3 lead - only to see the Cubans battle back for a 7-6 victory.

"They have great hitters and they're experienced and patient," he said. "You could see with the maturity that they didn't panic at all. Even if they were down two runs in the ninth inning, they found a way. A lot of college teams will panic and try to bunt, but they just let guys hit and try to figure out a way to win."

Meanwhile, the party never stopped in the stands.

"The last night they brought a Jumbotron in and I thought, 'Where did that come from?' " Gonzales recalled. "The whole thing was like a soccer match for nine innings. They played music videos between innings and we were even jamming a little in the dugout."

The atmosphere in Holland was similarly wild - loud horns, bawdy songs and surprisingly rabid fans - and Gonzales admitted being "more nervous for my first start there than anything all year."

But being thrown into unfamiliar challenges really isn't anything new, and Gonzales drew on that experience.

Before he even put on a Gonzaga uniform, Gonzales decided to test himself with a 2010 summer gig with the Wenatchee Apple Sox of the West Coast League - a high schooler trying to prove himself against some of the Northwest's best college talent.

"I was thrown in the mix right away and didn't really have a choice but to adjust," he said. "I got knocked around a little, but once you challenge yourself at a higher level, doing it again seems like not such a big deal."

So he stymied Japan, striking out 10 in seven innings in a 4-1 victory in Team USA's Honkbal - that's the Dutch word for "baseball" - opener, pitching himself through a few tight spots in the process. The collegians lost a 10-inning semifinal decision to Cuba later in the week, but Gonzales was back on the mound for the bronze medal game and beat the hosts 4-3 with an eight-inning effort that included eight strikeouts and just one earned run. The two outings made him a fairly obvious choice as the tournament's outstanding pitcher.

There were other rewards. Gonzales' family joined him in Haarlem, and there were trips into Amsterdam and to the beach along the English Channel. Which didn't mean he wasn't ready to come home when it was all over.

"You just want to see a Taco Bell every once in a while," he laughed.

And he picked up more than souvenirs. Team USA manager Dave Serrano, the head coach at Tennessee, helped Gonzales improve a changeup to left-handed hitters and added some insight to a cut fastball he's been working on. All that can only help an arsenal that includes a fastball that topped out at 92 mph last year.

But the long summer of competition - on top of the 92 innings he threw last spring - makes it likely that Gonzales won't pitch until maybe midway through Gonzaga's fall season. That'll give him time to work on his hitting stroke, and more.

"This will be an interesting fall," he said. "We have 20 new guys on a fall roster of 43 and that's the most we've ever had. The older guys will be depended on for leadership more than ever, and that's me now."

There's also a sense of mission. The 2011 Zags were a smash to start the season, winning their first 10 games and climbing into the Top 25. But they were derailed by losing five of six to San Francisco and Loyola Marymount, and wound up third in the WCC behind Pepperdine and San Diego.

"It was a bitter taste losing the championship to USF two years ago, and worse last year," Gonzales said. "We had so much talent and everything going for us, but we had some injuries and bad luck - and bad timing.

"This year, the conference tournament is a four-team playoff and that gives us some hope - it gives every team hope - and maybe a different strategy depending on how the season is going. I think guys are hungry and ready to prove they belong."

Something that's never been an issue for Marco Gonzales.