Nationals pitcher Gio Gonzalez possesses unique talent. A left-handed power pitcher in a division full of rivals who struggle against southpaws, his performance and joie de vivre plays a vital role in the Nationals’ stirring success so far this season. That’s important, because Washington traded four top prospects to get the two-time All Star.
Gonzalez, with his wide smile, otherworldly curveball and 13 victories, has been a good addition for Nationals teammates and fans alike. He should be even better, but he has to get out of his own way first.
After watching his last two appearances, one on television, one in person (the second game of Friday’s doubleheader split with the Miami Marlins), it appears that Gonzalez’s strengths are being muted by his greatest weakness - the raw emotions he displays when he pitches, especially when things go awry.
The 26-year old pitches best when he’s smiling. But last week against Milwaukee, it was clear the scowling, fuming Gonzalez wasn’t having fun. He looked and acted like a kid whose dad took away his video games.
Home plate umpire Mike Estabrook had a strike zone as inconsistent as it was tight. Time and time again, Gonzalez hit catcher Jesus Flores’ glove, only to have pitch after pitch called a ball. After each bad call, Gonzalez looked more frustrated. After six innings and five runs, Davey Johnson called for a new pitcher. Dejected, Gonzalez walked off the field. He had let a difficult situation become a large deficit, one that his teammates eventually overcame in an 11-10 victory.
Last Friday night, Gonzalez and the Nationals were not so fortunate. Through the first five innings, Gonzalez had everything going his way, even a pitcher-friendly umpire in Adrian Johnson. While Miami’s Josh Johnson almost matched him pitch for pitch, Gonzalez had a one-hitter (a Jose Reyes’ bunt single) going and the Nationals led 1-0.
To begin the sixth inning, Gonzalez retired the first batter on one pitch. Next, he faced Johnson, a .083 hitter, and ran the count to 1-2. He looked invincible, throwing perhaps his best game since opening day. He had thrown only 55 pitches. A complete-game shutout looked not just possible, but likely.
Then his head got in the way. The count went to 2-2 on Johnson. The next pitch, a fastball, skipped into the dirt. An almost sure out became a full count in a one-run game.
Gonzalez kicked the pitcher’s mound in frustration - the beginning of the end. He hurled his next pitch angrily - a fastball down the middle that Johnson crushed to the right-field wall on one hop. A hustling Bryce Harper held the Marlins pitcher to a single.
Gonzalez fumed and burned in the next pitch. The batter lined it foul down the right-field line, but Harper made the catch. Gonzalez’s mental state continued to deteriorate. The Marlins knew they were going to get a heavy dose of fastballs and they were ready.
Just six pitches later, four consecutive batters, all connecting on fastballs, combined to drive in three runs. Gonzalez’s gem morphed into a 3-1 deficit from which the Nationals could not recover. His record fell to 13-6. His ERA rose to 3.34.
Anyone who has played Little League baseball soon learns that the national pastime and temper tantrums are a bad combination. Gonzalez needs to remind himself of this simple lesson when something goes haywire during one of his outings.
As good as he has been this season - a 13-game winner, an All Star - he is capable of more. With the cornucopia of blessings in his left arm, he should never end a season in the National League with an ERA above 3.00.
Right now, Gonzalez is a good pitcher with an impressive 1.136 WHIP and 147 strikeouts in 132 innings pitched, an astounding rate of 10 Ks every nine innings. If he learns to regulate his emotions better, he could move from merely good to one of baseball’s best.
For the Nationals to achieve their full potential this season, a more emotionally resilient pitcher is exactly what they need Gonzalez to become. The physical gifts for greatness are already in place, but will he learn the equally important mental maturity?
Stephen Walker blogs about the Nationals at District on Deck and is the author of “A Whole New Ballgame: The 1969 Washington Senators” (Pocol Press, 2009). His work appears here as part of MASNsports.com’s effort to welcome guest bloggers to our little corner of the Internet. All opinions expressed are those of the guest bloggers, who are not employed by MASNsports.com but are just as passionate about their baseball as our roster of writers.