ESPN.com's Buster Olney broke down what he thought were the most interesting division series matchups yesterday, and no.1 on his list of 12 things to look for?
"Justin Verlander and Gio Gonzalez versus the first innings."
They both have overpowering stuff," Mr. Olney wrote, "and each of them is a high-energy, caffeinated personality -- they talk fast, they think fast. It's a part of what drives them." But, the ESPN analyst warned, "... this trait also can be problematic, especially in the very early stages of big games, because their frenetic nature can become an issue as they try to maintain control of the baseball."
The big question Mr. Olney left readers with: "Will Gonzalez fill the bases with walks and constantly get behind in the strike zone?" The 27-year-old left-hander's tendency to issue more walks than most pitching coaches would probably like to see given up was an issue the Nationals noted immediately upon acquring Gonzalez from the A's last winter.
Gonzalez led the league in walks in 2011, of course, allowing 91 (4.05 BB/9) in 202.0 IP for the Athletics. As D.C. GM Mike Rizzo saw it when he dealt for Gonzalez in a December 23, 2011 trade that brought RHP Robert Gilliam to Washington from Oakland as well in exchange for RHP A.J. Cole, LHP Tommy Milone, RHP Brad Peacock and C Derek Norris, the former White Sox' '04 1st Round pick who'd been dealt four times before making his MLB debut, just had to cut down on the walks to become an elite-level pitcher. In an interview with ESPN980's Kevin Sheehan and Thom Loverro in April, the Nats' general manager said he already saw signs that Gonzalez's development was continuing.
"We said when we acquired him we saw his walk totals trending in the right direction for us," Rizzo told the Sports Fix hosts, "He was a 4.5 per nine inning walk guy. He trended it down [to just] about 4.0 BB/9 and we always said his stuff is such, he's got such swing and miss stuff and he strikes out a lot of batters, that if he could ever get his walk totals to that 3.5 BB/9-type of guy he goes from a really, really good starter to one of the elite left-handed starters in the game."
After struggling in his first outing with Washington in Wrigley Field on Opening Day, Gonzalez bounced back in the second game of the year. The Nats' left-hander threw 7.0 scoreless against Cincinnati that day, allowing no walks and just two hits in a 3-2 win over the Reds, prompting his manager to praise what the pitcher had accomplished through Spring Training and the first few starts. "The curve ball is unhittable," the Nats' 69-year-old skipper said, "Fastball is live. I heard that he was a little wild, well I haven't seen indications of that. He's been around the plate, even his misses are close."
For the fifth-straight year, Gonzalez's walk totals trended down and ended up right about where the Nats' GM hoped they would... except lower. After 56 (5.11 BB/9) in 98.2 IP in 2009, 92 (4.13 BB/9) in 200.2 IP in 2010 and 91 (4.05 BB/9) in 202.0 IP in 2011, Gio Gonzalez finished the 2012 regular season schedule with 76 walks (3.43 BB/9) in 199.1 IP and with his (21-8) record, 2.89 ERA, 2.82 FIP and 207 Ks (9.35 K/9 up from 8.78 in '11 and 7.67 in '10), the Nats' left-hander did rise to the level of some of the "elite left-handed starters" in the game, while also putting himself in the conversation for the NL Cy Young Award.
In his career, including this season, the 27-year-old lefty has a 4.17 ERA with 58 BBs (4.31 BB/9) in 121.0 first innings pitched. Gonzalez had a 3.27 first inning ERA and walked 20 (5.45 BB/9) in 33.0 first innings in 2010, a 2.53 ERA and seven walks (1.96 BB/9) in 32.0 first innings in 2011 and this year a 3.38 ERA with 16 BB (4.50 BB/9) in 32.0 first innings. Davey Johnson reiterated, when he spoke to reporters yesterday in his pre-NLDS press conference, that he's seen nothing of the control-challenged pitcher he was told about when the Nats acquired Gonzalez this winter.
"The thing that surprised me this year from what I read on scouting reports on him," the Nats' manager said, "was that he had a tendency to be wild. And he's very seldom been wild. He's had great command all year." If Gonzalez can keep his emotions in check (and stay warm, it's cold in St. Louis) in the first postseason start of his career, he can take some of the pressure off himself and all the Nationals, many of whom, like their starter, are experiencing this all for the first time.