The Cubs will counter with southpaw Jon Lester, who went 13-8 with a 4.33 ERA in 32 starts this season.
Gonzalez went 15-9 with a 2.96 ERA in 32 starts. He struck out 188 in 201 innings. The 15 wins were the most in a regular season for Gonzalez since his career-high 21 victories in 2012.
Gonzalez appeared to be positively influenced by the arrival of veteran catcher Matt Wieters. Early on, Gonzalez was focused and on point, his tempo appeared to be faster than in season’s past and he didn’t get bogged down by tough situations.
“It was a little bit of a conscious effort,” Wieters said of the advanced tempo. “I think more than anything Gio’s stuff is unbelievable, just like (Stephen Strasburg’s) stuff, just like (Max Scherzer’s) stuff. So it’s about getting him to get the ball and go and make the hitter not feel the comfortable in there. And they can do that with the tempo to where you don’t even give the hitter a chance to breathe and figure out what pitch they’re going even try to swing at.”
It is not lost on Strasburg or Gonzalez, or probably every starting pitcher for the Nats, the influence Wieters has had on making them better this season and getting the most out of each of their starts.
“I think Matt’s the first guy here, and I think him and some of the coaching staff (are) always in the video room doing their homework and studying hitters,” Gonzalez said. “He understands certain situations. Even when there’s a pitch that I have made a mistake on or I left it up, I’ve changed that thought where I was like, ‘I should have gone to another pitch.’ That was years before.
“I’ve gone to the point where that was a good pitch, but the location was terrible. That I’ve accepted, now pitching and growing up, and I think that’s complemented the catcher and Wieters has been a huge help to my success this year. I do not take anything away from what he’s done and how great he’s been.”
Wieters spoke after Game 1 about how Gonzalez doesn’t let an early mistake pitch ruin his entire start.
“I can’t speak for what he was like last year, but I know this year if he throws a pitch and he doesn’t feel like it’s up to his standards, he’s going to throw the same pitch the next time,” Wieters explained. “He’s not going to shy away from throwing any pitch no matter what he had done before. He has the confidence to make a pitch when he needs to.
But one other goal that has made a difference for Gonzalez this year is going after the strike zone with a passion.
“(I’m) just constantly trying to re-evolve, trying to find a new way to throw strikes,” Gonzalez said. “The game’s changing. If you’re seeing, the hitting is pretty tough. So for us, it’s trying to attack the strike zone, trying to lock in immediately. You can’t let yourself get in a groove after giving up a couple runs. You have to get it going right off the bat.
“I’ve learned this year with working with Matt, and seeing our starting rotation, how right off the bat, they are attacking the hitters, they are attacking the strike zone, and you know, they are going out there and giving themselves innings. That’s why they are going deep in the game.”
In the first half of the season, he raced out to a 7-4 record with a 2.86 ERA in 18 starts. His strikeouts per nine innings was 8.7. He was 3-0 with a 1.62 ERA in his first five starts.
He did well all season pitching with runners in scoring position. Batters hit .175 against him with RISP. With two outs, that batting average dropped to .155. In high leverage situations, he allowed just a .207 batting average against.
Saturday’s Game 2 will be a home start for Gio. This season he went 4-4 with a 2.76 ERA in 15 starts at home. Gonzalez said getting a start at Nationals Park in the postseason is a big deal. With his club down 1-0 in the series, it’s imperative that Gonzalez brings the confidence of pitching at home to a crucial Game 2.
“Last start I had at home was in 2012 (playoffs). (That was) the last I remember ... getting that home crowd feeling, the excitement to see everyone on their feet, clapping it up. They really get into it, the hometown crowd.”
Gonzalez also gets the opportunity to pitch after Strasburg went in Game 1. Having a left-hander follow a right-hander can make a difference, too. Gonzalez took the loss in his only start against the Cubs this season on June 26, even though he allowed only one run and two hits over six innings. The Nats trailed 1-0 for most of the game and did not score until they put up four in the ninth and lost 5-4.
“I don’t know what (today’s) lineup is going to look like, but I do have to prepare myself for the guys that I think are going to be there,” Gonzalez said of the Cubs. “That’s a lineup that can do magic one through nine, so you have to respect it, whoever they put out there. I just want to prepare myself and try and take one hitter at a time, and we’ll see how the outcome comes (today).”
Today, Gonzalez seeks his first postseason victory. In three postseasons with the Nats, Gonzalez has gone 0-0 with a 3.93 ERA over four career starts.