Marty Niland: G. Gonzalez primed to join elite company

Nationals left-hander Gio Gonzalez will be looking to join an exclusive club this weekend in Atlanta.

He’s set to take the mound Sunday bidding for his 20th win of the season. If he gets it, he’ll not only be the first 20-game winner in the major leagues this year, he’ll be the first player in a Washington uniform to do it in 59 years.

With a win in Atlanta or another of his final starts this season, Gonzalez will join a club that includes Walter Johnson, who won at least 20 a dozen times in his Hall of Fame career, along with Stan Coveleski, General Crowder, Bob Groom, Dutch Leonard, Bob Porterfield, Earl Whitehill and Roger Wolff. All played for the old Senators, who moved to Minnesota after the 1959 season. No pitcher on the expansion Seantors from 1961-1971 ever won 20 games, and no one on the Nats has ever come close - until now.

Johnson, of course, was the gold standard for pitchers, not only in Washington, but all of baseball. The Big Train’s 417 career wins still rank second all time. The Kansas native’s blazing fastball helped him to 3,509 career strikeouts, a record that stood for decades until Tom Seaver, Don Sutton and Gaylord Perry came along. He won 36 games in 1913 and 33 in 1912, and was a leader of the 1924 World Series champions and the 1925 pennant winners.

The last 20-game winner in Washington was Porterfield, who won 22 in 1953 for a team that went 76-76 and finished fifth in the AL. The New York Yankees traded him and relief pitchers Tom Ferrick and Fred Sanford to Washington for reliever Bob Kuzava. Porterfield never won more than 13 games in any other season and had losing record in his other years as a starter. But what a year he had in ‘53. His 24 complete games and nine shutouts led the league, and he was 10th in the AL with a 3.35 ERA.

The last man to win 20 games for a Washington team that played in the postseason was Crowder. His given name was Alvin, but he was nicknamed General after Gen. Enoch Crowder, who oversaw the first U.S. military draft. Crowder won 167 games in his 11-year career, leading the AL with 26 in 1932 and again in 1933 with 24, leading the Senators to their last AL pennant. He also pitched in the first All-Star game that season. Crowder later pitched in Detroit, where he helped the Tigers win back-to-back pennants in 1934 and 1935.

Winning at least 20 games has always been the hallmark of a great season, but it’s not nearly as common as it once was. Starting pitchers don’t go as often or as long as they did in Walter Johnson’s day. Consider that The Big Train pitched 802 games in his 21-year career, as both a starter and a reliever. His career high was 52 games. Modern-day ace Randy Johnson, in 22 seasons, pitched 618 games and never more than 35 times in a year.

The frequency of 20-game winners also declined with the advent of situational relieving in the 1980s and 1990s, pioneered by the likes of Nats manager Davey Johnson and former White Sox, A’s and Cardinals skipper Tony La Russa. A pitcher is much more likely to get a decision when he throws a complete game. But with greater use of the bullpen, more games are decided in the late innings, and the starters get fewer wins.

That’s what makes Gonzalez’s season so special. Not only is he set to join increasingly exclusive 20-win club, he has notched his first two career nine-inning complete games, playing for a manager who loves to use his bullpen.

If Gonzalez gets win No. 20, will it be the final milestone of 2012, or just one of many in a season that is turning into one for the ages? Nats fans can’t wait to find out.

Marty Niland blogs about the Nationals for D.C. Baseball History. His thoughts on the Nationals will appear here as part of’s season-long initiative of welcoming guest bloggers to our site. All opinions expressed are those of the guest bloggers, who are not employed by but are just as passionate about their baseball as our roster of writers.

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