Gio Gonzalez's 26th start of the season began with a seven-pitch, seven-strike, 1-2-3 first against the Miami Marlins, in front of a sizeable support group that traveled from eleven miles away in his hometown of Hialeah, Florida to watch him pitch for just the second time in his career in Marlins Park.
Gonzalez fell behind the first two batters he faced in the second innning and gave up back-to-back hits to Jeff Baker, who singled to left on a 91 mph 2-0 fastball from the Nats' left-hander, and Reed Johnson, who lined an RBI double to center on a 1-0 heater to give the Fish a 1-0 lead early in the series opener.
Gonzalez fell behind 3-0 to Adeiny Hechavarria in the at bat that followed, but battled back and threw a 92 mph 3-2 fastball by the Marlins' shortstop up high for a swinging K.
The Nationals' lefty started behind 1-0 against Jarrod Saltalamacchia with a runner on second and one out, but Saltalamacchia lined out to center for the second out of the frame and Gonzalez got ahead on 22-year-old Miami third baseman Enrique Hernandez with a first-pitch curve before getting the infielder to line out to Denard Span in center on a 1-1 change, stranding Johnson at second.
After the outing, which saw Gonzalez throw seven strong innings on 96 pitches, giving up just two earned runs while walking no one for just the second time this season, Nationals' manager Matt Williams praised the lefty's ability to throw his curve for strikes early in the count, which Williams said is an important part of the left-hander's success, and something he's improved on as the season has gone along.
"It just sometimes steals him a strike," Williams explained. "If I was -- as a hitter -- going to walk up there, I'm certainly not going to look for that first pitch, I'm going to try to get a fastball to hit, so if he can do that, it just steals him a strike and then it opens it up for him. So, he's been doing that a lot and his changeup has been really good too."
The first-pitch curve to Hernandez was the only one Gonzalez threw in Thursday night's outing, at least according to MLB.com's Gameday, but he threw first-pitch changeups to Saltalamacchia and Johnson on several occasions and got ahead with the pitch in all but one instance.
"I was really pleased with the way Gio threw it," Williams said. "He could have gone back out [for the eighth], but wanted to make sure that he's ready for his next one as well.
"He threw really well. Changeup is really good. Curveball is really good. And a good velocity fastball tonight too when he wanted it. So, that may be the best that I've seen him since he's been back from his mini-stint with his shoulder issue. But he was really good."
"That might be the best I've seen him since he's been back from his mini-(DL) stint." -- Matt Williams on @GioGonzalez47 tonight.— Washington Nationals (@Nationals) September 19, 2014
Gonzalez spent four weeks on the DL between mid-May and mid-June, and after rough first outing upon returning to the rotation, put together three straight scoreless outings, but from July 10th through the end of August he struggled on the mound, going (0-5) with a 4.38 ERA and a .268/.341/.389 line against over nine starts and 49 ⅓ IP.
In four starts this month, however, including tonight's, Gonzalez has allowed nine earned runs in 25 ⅔ IP (3.15 ERA) while winning three of the four outings.
Williams was asked if the veteran lefty's mindset or approach has changed as the regular season has wound down, but he said Gonzalez's recent success has more to do with him finally getting straightened out.
"I just think he's got better feel," Williams explained.
"Again, we look back to not-too-long-ago, where his slot was a little bit off and he was losing control of the fastball up and away to righties and didn't have a feel for his curveball. But he's got that back, which is important for him and if he can do that, then he can roll through a lineup because he's throwing them all for strikes. So, I just think he's got better feel and if you spend time on the DL, it takes time to get that back."
Is that especially true, he was asked, for a pitcher like Gonzalez, who landed on the DL this year for the first time in his career?
"Yeah, potentially," Williams allowed. "If he doesn't know how to react to it. Again, it's about routine and bullpens and finding the feel in the bullpen and continuing it and all of those things. Just like being a hitter or a fielder. So, yeah, he's got a good feel for it right now."
After the win over the Marlins, Gonzalez is (9-10) on the year with a 3.74 ERA, a 3.13 FIP, 54 walks (3.20 BB/9) and 150 Ks (8.90 K/9) in 151 ⅔ IP.
Has he done enough and shown enough in his recent outings to earn a spot in the Nationals' postseason rotation?