PHILADELPHIA — As the Washington Nationals came in for the top of the third inning, Gio Gonzalez had a request for his manager: Don’t give up on me.
“Gio about gave me a heart attack the first two innings,” said Nationals manager Davey Johnson, watching his ace left-hander get beat around early.
“I was thinking, ‘My goodness, he’s gonna have 100 pitches after three.’ But he came to me after he got through two — luckily, he got through two only giving up three runs — and said, ‘Skip, I got this. Stay with me.’ And I said, ‘I plan on it.’”
Gonzalez’s first inning went bad so quickly Thursday night. One minute he had two outs, the next he was struggling to find the strike zone, walking back-to-back batters, serving up bases-loaded doubles, and stalking around the mound yammering at himself. In a three-run, three-walk, two-hit, 37-pitch first inning, Gonzalez looked nothing like the Cy Young candidate he’s clearly become this season.
Pitching coach Steve McCatty told Johnson that Gonzalez had only needed 13 pitches in the bullpen before he felt like he was ready. As Johnson noted, anything that was conserved by warming quickly was gone after the first inning.
“Just couldn’t find the strike zone,” Gonzalez said. “I mean if you looked at me I looked like I had a split personality. I was talking to myself. I was out there trying to beat myself up. I was just trying to get in my head a lot, trying to figure it out.”
Teammates pestered him. They patted him on the back, told him to pick it up, forced him to refocus. This was not the time for him to falter.
“You can’t show signs of weakness,” Gonzalez said. “You can’t give them blood in the water for a bunch of sharks. I think that’s what it is and I think what we did was just minimize damage, stop the bleeding and move forward.”
“That’s what a good team does is help the pitcher find his way back,” Gonzalez said. “I think everyone had a part in saying something and bouncing me right back to where I needed to be. They directed me to my right line and I was a little out of whack. As soon as the second inning came along, some of the guys were asking me, ‘What are you doing? Let’s go. Figure it out and let’s attack that strike zone.’ That’s exactly what you need, some words of encouragement.”
What followed was five scoreless innings to give Gonzalez a final line of six innings pitched, six hits, three earned runs, three walks and six strikeouts.
For all intents and purposes, his Cy Young chances likely took a hit with that performance, quality start as it might be. Mets pitcher R.A. Dickey fired off a 13-strikeout performance for his 20th win earlier in the day on Thursday, stiffening the competition between the two. And Gonzalez’s line isn’t as pristine as the kind you’d expect from a Cy Young winner.
But what Gonzalez was able to do, able to rebound into, was perhaps more impressive than when he’s fired a shutout.
“Absolutely,” agreed catcher Kurt Suzuki, who knows when to push Gonzalez on the mound.
“I think a lot of people can pitch well when things are going good. But it’s the guys that can really bear down when they need to, when things aren’t going their way or they aren’t feeling their greatest. That showed Gio’s maturity.
“I think that I tried my best to give the guys what they deserved,” Gonzalez said. “It was a quality start, and keeping them in the game as much as possible. After the first inning I kind of settled in after that but that’s what a good-hitting team does.”