On emotional night in Miami, Gonzalez pitches game of his life

MIAMI - When it was over, when Dee Gordon lined his 1-1 curveball cleanly into left-center field to open the bottom of the ninth to end his flirtation with history, Gio Gonzalez knew it was time to call it a night.

There were still three outs to go before the Nationals could secure a 1-0 victory over the Marlins, and Gonzalez’s pitch count was a manageable 106. But this wasn’t about workload or trying to go the distance. Emotionally speaking, the lefty was done.

“I’ll be honest with you: It was just like, ‘All right, that’s it. I’m exhausted,’” he said later. “‘Let’s go. Go get the man, close this game out and let’s go. I want to go home.’”

gio-gonzalez-gray miami.jpgOnce you consider everything that was consuming Gonzalez’s mind at that moment, you understand why he felt that way. Baseball was only taking up a fraction of space.

Instead, Gonzalez was thinking about home, both near and far. He was thinking about his home in nearby Hialeah, just eight miles northwest of here, and how he grew up dreaming of pitching either for or against the Marlins. He was thinking about his friend José Fernández, the former Marlins ace who would have turned 25 today had he not died in a boat crash in September. He was thinking about Fernández’s mother and girlfriend and daughter, who he met before the game during their visit to the stadium. And he was thinking about what was taking place at his home in Washington, where his wife Lea is days away from giving birth to the couple’s second child.

Imagine trying to process all of that on any old Monday night in July. Now imagine trying to process all of that while carrying a no-hitter into the ninth inning.

“He gave us everything and more that we could have asked for,” manager Dusty Baker said.

No-hitter or not, this might well have been the performance of Gonzalez’s life. On the mound, he navigated his way through his first eight innings allowing nothing but three walks and a hit-by-pitch, never allowing one Miami runner to advance past first base.

“It’s a really good lineup over there,” catcher Matt Wieters said. “You really have to use all your pitches, especially off-speed stuff, and he was able to do that in any count you wanted to tonight.”

Sometime around the sixth or seventh inning, teammates recognized what was going on and began the time-honored superstition of avoiding all unnecessary interaction with a pitcher who has yet to surrender a hit.

All the while, Gonzalez was his usual self. Which is to say, very active.

“You know, he’s an emotional wreck out there all the time,” right fielder Bryce Harper said. “That’s just Gio. That’s the way he is. Everybody knows that. But I love the way he pitches.”

The Nationals have every reason to love the way Gonzalez is pitching this season. He now owns a 2.66 ERA, fourth-best in the majors, trailing only three of the game’s elite hurlers: Clayton Kershaw, Max Scherzer and Chris Sale.

Scherzer and Sale dueled against each other in this very ballpark three weeks ago as the starting pitchers for their respective leagues in the All-Star Game. Kershaw would have been in consideration for the assignment as well had he not started the Dodgers’ final game of the first half.

Gonzalez? He was back in Washington, passed over for a spot in an All-Star Game in his hometown he (and many others) felt he deserved.

Upset over his spurn, how has Gonzalez responded? In four starts since the All-Star break, he has a 1.86 ERA and twice has pitched into the ninth inning.

“He seems very focused and driven,” Baker said. “He wanted to make the All-Star team. And after you come close to one, you’ve got to make another goal. I’m sure that Gio wanted to pitch here at home in front of his home boys.”

Gonzalez loves to pitch against his hometown team. In 14 career starts against the Marlins, he’s now 8-3 with a 1.99 ERA. But his heart and mind weren’t entirely in Miami tonight, not with Lea back in D.C. and due to give birth any day now.

Imagine how she and the couple’s 16-month-old son Enzo felt watching tonight’s game unfold from 1,000 miles away.

“She texted me saying: ‘You almost put me in labor today!’” Gonzalez said.

Lea didn’t go into labor today. But if she had, if she had sent word to the Nationals clubhouse during the game, Gonzalez insists he would have dropped whatever he was doing and put himself on the first plane back to Washington.

Even if the no-hitter was still in play?

“Absolutely,” he said. “Put that ball there. I would love to see my boy or girl - we don’t know right now, mystery baby coming out. It’s definitely one of those things, I will always - I don’t care what situation I’m in - I will always be there to see my kids.”

And he will always feel a special bond with the Marlins, their fans and the young ace who was lost in September. Gonzalez, Harper and Edwin Jackson made a point to visit with the Fernandez family earlier in the day. And when his outing was over, when Baker took the ball from his hand and he made his way back to the dugout, Gonzalez let everyone know how he felt.

He looked toward first base and saw Gordon and tipped his cap to the man who just broke up his no-hitter. He looked toward the on-deck circle and saw Giancarlo Stanton and tipped his cap to the All-Star slugger who was due up next. Both Marlins returned the gesture.

And as he reached the dugout steps, Gonzalez tipped his cap to the crowd of 18,962 that understood what this moment meant, no matter the fact it happened to a player in a gray visitors uniform.

“I know how emotional it is for them,” the left-hander said. “That’s their teammate, friend, family. That’s everything to them. I had a close relationship with him, and so did my brother. We fished with him, every other day it felt like. Today was just one of those special days for José and his family. All in all, just a game you just have to fight through and put the emotion behind you and try to pitch.”

Gonzalez didn’t just pitch. He pitched the best game of his life, on a day when life mattered a whole lot more than baseball.

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