Dusty Baker pointed to Gio Gonzalez’s ability to throw his curve for strikes early this season when he discussed the 31-year-old lefty’s strong start to the 2017 campaign.
“Last year he was bouncing a lot of them,” Baker explained, “or he’d try to shoot you with an inside fastball and I’d bet you eight out of ten of them were balls, you know, but now if he shoots you inside, seven out of ten are strikes and some of those bouncers — breaking balls -- Mike Maddux tells him all the time, ‘Keep that curveball in the air,’ cause the ones that bounce, unless you get a young, inexperienced hitter, the good hitters ain’t going to go for that bait, because that’s what it is, is bait. So that’s what I see.”
Gonzalez’s Zone% (Pitches in the strike zone/Total pitches) for his curve is up from last season (34.9% up from 26.5%) and he’d throwing his fastball in the strike zone more consistently as well (57% up from 50.3%) before Sunday’s start against the Philadelphia Phillies.
Working with Matt Wieters in each of his first two starts, he’d also thrown his curve more often (23.3% so far, up from 16.9%, 18.2% and 19.8%, respectively over the last three seasons).
Through two starts, the results were positive. Gonzalez took the mound Sunday, in his third outing of the season, with a 0.69 ERA, a 2.63 FIP, one walk (0.69 BB/9) and 13 Ks (9.00 K/9) in 13 innings.
Taking on the Phillies for the first time this season, Gonzalez gave up a solo home run by Cesar Hernandez in the first, then held the Nationals’ NL East rivals off the board until the eighth, retiring 10 straight at one point, before back-to-back singles (and an error on the second single) got the visiting team with one run.
Koda Glover took over and surrendered a two-out single that drove in the tying run for the Phillies.
Gonzalez completed 7 1⁄3 innings, giving up five hits, three walks and three runs, two earned, in a 105-pitch, 61-strike outing in which he generated 10 ground ball outs.
According to Brooksbaseball.net, Gonzalez threw 13 of 28 curves for strikes (46.4%), 28 of 46 fastballs (60.9%), mixed in a sinker (10 of 14 for strikes, 71.4%) and threw a total of 17 changeups (10 for strikes, 58.8%).
Baker told reporters that after Gonzalez struggled with his command early, he settled in nicely.
“Early on he was all over the place,” the Nats’ skipper said.
“He was wild up and away a number of times. [Daniel Murphy] calmed him down. Gio was calmed also by Anthony [Rendon].
“We just told him to try less and in the middle innings, he got it together. It’s been a while since Gio pitched into the eighth.”
The last time Gonzalez completed eight innings was back in 2015, and he did it just once that season.
He was up to 93 pitches after seven yesterday, and Baker made the decision to send him back out.
“The bullpen has been struggling a little bit,” he explained, “and I wrestled with hitting for him in the sixth with runners on first and second to try to get some more runs, because I had visions of us being haunted by — earlier in the game you had two runners on second with nobody out and didn’t advance either one or score either one of them, and those ended up coming up big.”
Wieters told reporters, including MASN’s Mark Zuckerman, that Gonzalez managed to get to the eighth in spite of the fact that wasn’t as sharp as he was in his two previous starts.
“He battled,” Wieters said. “I’d say out of the three outings [this season], that was probably the worst stuff he’s had. But he was able to come back when he needed to, and when he got behind in the count he made some big pitches. He used everything, and he was able to locate enough when he needed to, to get through that and really give us a great outing.”
Gonzalez received no decision when the bullpen blew the lead he left the mound with, and the Nationals fell behind in the ninth, but Bryce Harper’s walk-off home run lifted them to a 6-4 win a half-inning later.