Washington Nationals fans should tip their caps to Gio Gonzalez, the one-time ace of the pitching staff, who helped put Washington on the map as a perennial contender and was a steady presence for seven seasons. The 35-year-old has announced this week he is retiring after a 13-year major league career.
On any list of landmark dates in the history of the Washington Nationals, Dec. 23, 2011 should be right up there. It’s the day Mike Rizzo obtained Gonzalez, coming off an All-Star season, for A.J. Cole, Tommy Milone, Derek Norris, and Brad Peacock. Never mind that Peacock would help Houston win three American League pennants and a World Series. Or that Milone is still active and a .500 career pitcher, or that Norris had an All-Star season in Oakland in 2014. Whatever got away from the Nationals in that trade pales in comparison to the credibility and respect the team got in Gonzalez.
The Nats had finished strong in 2011 to go 80-81, but had still never finished above .500 since moving to Washington. They had in place an established manager with a postseason resume in Davey Johnson. They had shelled out big free-agent money for Jayson Werth, and they brought along a couple of young starters with a lot of potential, Stephen Strasburg and Jordan Zimmermann. All of them were known commodities, crucial elements in an up-and-coming team, but not difference makers to that point.
Like many lefties, Gonzalez’s weapons were his big curveball when he got ahead in the count against lefties and a change up that buckled right-handed batters.
Pitching coach Steve McCatty taught him to get ahead of hitters by pounding the strike zone with fastballs, putting him in position to use his breaking balls to get big outs.
By the end of the year, he was 21-8, the first 20-game winner in Washington in 59 seasons, since Bob Porterfield went 22-10 in 1953.
He finished third in the National League Cy Young voting in his first season after coming over from the AL.
But more importantly, Gonzalez was the staff ace of the best team in baseball, with his 21 victories accounting for more than the jump from 80-win mediocrity to 98-win brilliance.
Gonzalez started off with a record-setting April, when he pitched 29 consecutive scoreless innings from April 12-29. He ran his record to 7-1 with a perfect May, in which he struck out 45 batters and allowed just one home run, pitching to a 2.25 ERA.
On May 27 against Atlanta, he pitched seven innings of one-hit baseball, striking out a season-high 10 batters in a 7-2 win over Atlanta.
The Nats swept the Braves over three games for a 2 1⁄2 game NL East lead, their largest of the young season.
A month later, he walked just one and struck out seven in a 12-5 win in Colorado, and the Nats had increased their division lead to 3 1⁄2 games. The lead grew by another game on July 7, when he allowed just three Colorado hits and one run over six innings. On Aug. 9, he notched his first career complete game, beating Houston 4-3, and on Aug. 31, he ran his record to 17-7 with his first complete-game shutout, a 10-0, five-hit gem in St. Louis. By this time, the Nationals had not only built a 6 1⁄2 game division lead over Atlanta, but they were the best team in baseball at 80-51, reaching their 2011 win total with 31 games to play.
By the time Gonzalez won his 21st game on Sept. 27, the Nats had clinched their first postseason berth and were closing in on their first NL East title.
The main talk as the Nats started the NL Division Series against St. Louis was the early shutdown of Strasburg, who was 15-6 in his first full season after Tommy John surgery. But with Gonzalez on the mound, the Nats quickly flipped the story to the team’s first postseason victory. He allowed just one hit and two runs over five innings in a 3-2 win over St. Louis.
Of course, the game many remember Gonzalez for that season was Game 5 of the Division Series against the Cardinals. After Jayson Werth’s dramatic home run gave the Nats new life with a Game 4 victory, the Nats were hoping their ace would fold the Cards that night. But Gonzalez lasted just five innings, and while he left with a 6-3 lead, the bullpen famously coughed up the lead and the series.
Was Gonzalez a great postseason pitcher? Not by any stretch of the imagination. But he was not terrible. It’s true that the team lost all three elimination games he started in his four postseason runs in Washington. In 2014 in Game 4, he left after four innings with no runs allowed. But in the 2017 Game 5 start against the Cubs, he was ineffective, giving up three runs on three hits in three innings.
Because of those elimination game losses, many people will not remember the games he pitched in when the Nats won. His lines were similar, but his teammates gave him enough support to win. In Game 3 in 2016 against the Dodgers, he gave up three runs on three hits in 4 1⁄3 innings in an 8-3 Nats’ win. In Game 2 against the Cubs in 2017, he allowed three runs on three hits over five innings in a 6-3 Nats’ victory.
Regardless of how he pitched in the postseason, Gonzalez gave the Nationals and their fans not only the wonderful 2012 season, but six more after that. Each year, he logged double-digit victories and pitched between 170-200 innings, with a 3.62 ERA over his seven years. In other words, a reliable, sturdy starter who gives his team a chance to win.
Gonzalez and his fans knew he often walked too many batters, but when his breaking balls were at top command, it was fun to watch Gonzalez make batters swing and miss or buckle at the knees when guessing wrong.
There are certain landmark players in the history of any franchise, and there are already pitchers who will make Gonzalez’s totals look ordinary. But make no mistake, few players have had the immediate and lasting impact on the Nationals that Gonzalez had.
While he wasn’t part of their World Series title in 2019, Gio Gonzalez helped set the foundation that team was built on. He raised the bar for pitching in the nation’s capital, and he should be remembered as one of the Nats’ all-time greats.