With a cruel 1-2 curve to the next-to-last batter he faced on Thursday night, Washington Nationals' lefty Gio Gonzalez set a new career-high in Ks. Lucas Duda, who struck out in all four of his plate appearances in the New York Mets' 3-0 loss in the final game of the year against the 2014 NL East Champs, was Gonzalez's 12th victim on a night that the 28-year-old Nats' lefty had it all working.
"From the first batter he threw good curveballs, good changeups, fastball ticked up when he needed it to 94 tonight," Nationals' manager Matt Williams said after Gonzalez improved to (10-10) on the year and lowered his ERA from 3.74 to 3.57 and his FIP from 3.13 to 3.02 while bumping his K/9 up from 8.90 K/9 (150 in 151 ⅔) to 9.19 K/9 (162 in 158 ⅔).
"I think the cooler weather certainly helps pitchers," Williams told reporters in trying to explain Gonzalez's performace in the series finale and over the last month, "but tonight he felt really good and he was in command the whole game, so he pitched really well."
WIlliams said he thought Gonzalez's start against the Miami Marlins last time out was his strongest outing since he returned from a month on the DL in May-June, but asked if this one was better, the first-year skipper said it was one of a few impressive starts by Gonzalez this season.
"It's one of the best," Williams said. "He threw a game in Philly that was really good. He threw a game -- came out of the game without giving up a run another time that was really good, but tonight, I think command-wise, tonight was his best outing for sure."
After dropping four decisions and going winless in eight starts out of the All-Star Break over which he put up a 4.48 ERA in 42 ⅔ IP, Gonzalez has put up a 2.48 ERA over 32 ⅔ innings in September, making a strong case for his inclusion in the postseason rotation.
What's been working?
"It's just been -- the ability to throw [his] breaking ball for a strike," Williams said. "The ability to throw changeup in a fastball count when he wants to. He gets chase pitches on his fastball too, so when he combines all those then he's as tough as anybody. So over his last four, five, six outings he's been able to command his offspeed pitches which is key for him."
Is he finally over the shoulder issue? Did he finally find the right arm slot? Figure out a mechanical flaw? What's different?
"I don't know," Williams said. "Again, we go back to it, we didn't find anything with the shoulder other than some fatigue, and I think that's part of it, but I think it's confidence too. I think he's confident in his offspeed pitches, he's confident throwing a changeup when he wants to. His mechanics are good and yeah, I think he feels good too, so I mean all of those things combined help to make him effective when he goes out there.
"His fastball is good. It's 90-94 with some movement and again his breaking pitches are really good. So he can go out there and compete, but he feels good about all of them."
Gonzalez's seven scoreless innings helped the Nationals to their 92nd win of the season and left them one win away from clinching the home field advantage through the NLCS.
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