Gio Gonzalez tried to suppress his trademark smile. He pulled his hat down low over his head and strode out of the dugout like he was just another Nationals player after a 10-4 win over the Milwaukee Brewers on Saturday.
But there was no deflecting this accomplishment. Maybe 20 wins for a starting pitcher is no longer the defining mark of a brilliant season. Modern baseball statisticians have proven there are far better ways to measure a pitcher’s worth. But it still has stature and standing in the game among the players and coaches themselves and when Gonzalez found pitching coach Steve McCatty he gave him a big hug and finally flashed that smile.
Afterwards, Max Gonzalez, Gio’s father, stood by his son’s locker holding several baseballs from the day. There were $20 bills plastered over the locker thanks to his teammates and Gonzalez accepted congratulations from owner Mark Lerner, among other well-wishers who stopped by.
“Man, I’m at a loss for words now. I’m still in shock mode. I’m still emotional right now,” Gonzalez said. “I think that right now, it’s too much of a roller-coaster for me to handle, but at the same time, this team deserves what they got. We’re going to continue to play great baseball and today was an example.”
Gonzalez thought back to his offseason workouts back home in Hialeah, Fla. two years ago with trainer Sergio Pacheco. They had a folder labeled “Project 20” and the goal was to get Gonzalez, then an emerging pitcher with the Oakland A’s, in good enough shape to do exactly this.
“And I sit back and I laugh about it, but that’s every day, when I worked out with [Pacheco]. It was something we accomplished and something we wanted to strive for,” Gonzalez said. “In a way, you kind of smile about it, because we finally reached our goal and now it’s time to change it up and continue to try and get better goals and higher goals. This to me, you smile about it now, but tomorrow you turn the page and get ready for another game.”
Gonzalez tried his best to deflect the accomplishment. He thanked his hitters for their offensive support all season and the bullpen for preserving his strong outings and bailing him out when he needed it. Gonzalez praised McCatty for keeping him “exactly the same person, all even-keel all year. There are specific guys you want to hug and tell them thank you so much.” And, of course, general manager Mike Rizzo for bringing him here in the first place with a risky trade of four well-regarded minor leaguers to Oakland.
That risk was magnified given that even his own teammates didn’t know what they were getting. Playing in the Nationals League, most had never faced Gonzalez or only seen him pitch sporadically.
“I didn’t, honestly. I’d never faced him. Hadn’t seen him throw it a lot,” first baseman Adam LaRoche said. “I think probably the same goes for a lot of guys in here. If he was anything like this in Oakland it’s surprising they got rid of him because this guy is electric.”
Gonzalez improved to 20-8 after his seven shutout innings with just two unearned runs allowed in an eventual 10-4 win. His ERA is down to 2.84 and he’s in the mix for a N.L. Cy Young Award thanks to a strong finish to the season. Gonzalez now has 201 strikeouts. Maybe the most important stat to manager Davey Johnson is hits per nine innings. Gonzalez has allowed a sparkling 0.75 in 2012 and his WHIP is 1.12. That ranks 11th overall in baseball.
“That tells you what kind of pitcher and stuff he has,” Johnson said. “And his are phenomenal. I don’t think I’ve ever had somebody that’s had that few hits per inning.”
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