They started in on Gio Gonzalez right away as the Nationals’ left-hander faced his first tough inning of another lopsided night.
An infield hit and a double gave the Chicago Cubs a shot at actually scoring some runs in an eventual 9-1 loss to Washington. So while reliever Craig Stammen rapidly warmed up in the bullpen, pitching coach Steve McCatty and catcher Kurt Suzuki went out to the mound and chirped at Gonzalez. No one was talking about specifics afterwards. But Gonzalez, who had taken a no-hitter into the sixth inning and retired 20 of the first 24 batters he faced, took their barrage in stride until he felt the point was made.
“‘Hey, back off. Get off my mound already,’” Gonzalez told his visitors with mock irritation. “One of those situations where I wanted to go out there and finish strong.”
He did that with a swinging strikeout of Chicago third baseman Josh Vitters. That was the ninth strikeout of the game for Gonzalez and ended the threat. He left the game after seven innings with three hits allowed, no walks and, of course, no runs. It took a solo homer in the ninth by Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo off Stammen to break up the shutout. Not that anyone cared by then. Another strong outing from Gonzalez was in the books.
“Like I said his last outing, I said I expect that every time out of those guys, believe it or not,” teammate Adam LaRoche said. “They’ve got that kind of stuff. So it’s surprising, but it’s not surprising because we get to see them every fifth day.”
Washington manager Davey Johnson, who often lets slip things his players would rather keep out of the media, said he thought Gonzalez was intent on payback for a Chicago team that thrashed him in his first start of the season on April 7. Gonzalez lasted just 3 2/3 innings that day at Wrigley Field and gave up four runs in a game his team won anyway 7-4. Gonzalez denied that afterwards.
But he managed to get through the game without a walk. His curve ball was precise, darting down at the last instant, and when that happens the opponent is in trouble. Gonzalez had a nice change-up and he consistently finished Chicago batters with his explosive fastball up in the zone, touching 95 miles-per-hour on one strikeout of slugger Alfonso Soriano.
Because of his complete-game, 119-pitch outing last Friday in a win over St. Louis, Johnson was not going to let his pitcher go very far in this one. He had a rested bullpen to turn to, after all. That became a moot point once Gonzalez gave up his first hit of the night to start the sixth inning. That was just the Cubs’ second base runner. Ian Desmond had made a throwing error in the third inning. Gonzalez labored a bit in the seventh and was done after 93 efficient pitches.
Gonzalez didn’t want to look ahead to a possible 20-win season other than thanking his offense and his bullpen for even putting himself in position to do so. Teammates Stephen Strasburg and Jordan Zimmermann have pitched just as well this season and won’t come close to that mark. Gonzalez is tied with New York Mets pitcher R.A. Dickey for the major league lead with 18 wins and as many as five starts remaining. It’s the most wins by a Nats/Montreal Expos pitcher since 1985. Bryn Smith won 18 that season. Pedro Martinez won 17 and an NL Cy Young Award in 1997.
“Well, the group we got here we’re gonna shatter that,” Johnson said. “When you can have five guys in double figures that’s an outstanding staff. I don’t know how many more starts Gio gets, but he should get there.”
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