SAN DIEGO - Gio Gonzalez walked off the mound after retiring the side in the bottom of the sixth this afternoon. He had put in a full day’s work, throwing 105 pitches and holding the Padres to one unearned run, overcoming some shoddy defense in the first inning to keep his pitch count relatively manageable throughout.
Under normal circumstances, Dusty Baker probably would have shaken Gonzalez’s hand and thanked him for his efforts. These weren’t normal circumstances, though, not at the end of a long weekend in which his bullpen needed to throw 12 combined innings in 48 hours, leaving four members of that crew (Matt Grace, Sammy Solis, Matt Albers, Shawn Kelley) unavailable to pitch today.
And so Baker asked his starter to take the mound again in the seventh, hoping to squeeze a couple more outs from him before turning the game over to his relievers. Which is exactly what he got.
Gonzalez opened the seventh with a pair of strikeouts before surrendering a two-out single to Manuel Margot on his 121st pitch of the game, at which point Baker finally took the ball from his hand. Joe Blanton, Brandon Kintzler and Sean Doolittle collectively recorded the final seven outs, and the Nationals emerged with a 4-1 victory at Petco Park.
“I’ll tell you, that was big,” Baker said of Gonzalez’s effort. “He took one for the team. We needed him to go as deep as he did. We were thinking about it around the fifth and the sixth, but we needed some innings. We couldn’t fill those innings. So that was an outstanding performance for Gio.”
Skeptics will cringe at a pitch count that high on Aug. 20 from a starter who needs to save something for October, not this game of far less significance. But Baker and pitching coach Mike Maddux took several factors into consideration - Gonzalez threw only 91 pitches in his last start, he gets an extra day of rest before his next start, he showed no signs of fatigue - and made the decision.
And Gonzalez himself understood the situation and approved of the move.
“You learn there’s always that one time you’re going to have to pitch one more, and save one more out or one more inning for the bullpen,” the lefty said. “Those guys have been working hard for us, so I don’t mind going up and keep throwing.”
Teammates appreciated the effort as well, all the more so because they were largely responsible for adding to Gonzalez’s pitch count in the first after committing two errors and failing to make another makeable play.
“After the first inning, when he threw more pitches than he wanted to, to get that deep into the ballgame was very impressive,” second baseman Daniel Murphy said.
Thing is, this is becoming the norm for Gonzalez, who has earned the complete trust of his teammates, his coaches, his manager and anyone else who has watched him regularly during this remarkable comeback season.
There are exactly six weeks of baseball left to be played before the regular season is complete. Much can, and will, change between now and then. But if the season were to continue on its current course, the member of the Nationals vaunted rotation with the best case for a Cy Young Award might not be the guy who took home the hardware last fall. It might just be Gonzalez.
Not ready to buy into that argument yet? That’s fair. But let’s consider where things stand at this moment.
The left-hander’s updated season stats: a 12-5 record, 2.39 ERA (third-best in the majors), 20 quality starts (tied with Chris Sale for most in the majors), a .120 opponents’ batting average with runners in scoring position (best in the majors).
Yes, Clayton Kershaw has more wins (15) and a lower ERA (2.04) but the Dodgers ace has made three fewer starts and remains on the disabled list with a back injury. Yes, Max Scherzer has a lower ERA (2.25) and more strikeouts (220) but the reigning Cy Young winner also now resides on the DL with a neck injury.
Kershaw and Scherzer are expected to return fairly soon, and if either or both pick up where they left off, this may become a pointless discussion. But if they take longer to return than expected, or if they lose some effectiveness upon their return, the door might just swing open for Gonzalez to swoop in and steal some hardware.
Does the 31-year-old allow himself to pause for a moment and consider the big picture, look at his overall numbers and how they stack up with the rest of the league? He insists he does not.
“I’m just trying to make it into every start,” Gonzalez said with a laugh. “It’s tough to do. Especially the way hitters swing the bat now.”
That’s fine. Gonzalez can focus on what he needs to do every fifth day. The rest of us can sit back and marvel at what he has accomplished, and how he might be rewarded for all that when it’s all said and done.