Head down, lips pressed together, Gio Gonzalez tried as hard as he could not to smile.
He placed one foot in front of the other, rounded second base and then third. When he crossed home plate he couldn’t take it anymore.
He flashed his pearly whites.
Ushered into the dugout amongst a sea of high-fives and hugs, Gonzalez basked in his moment.
Sure, he was in the midst of throwing six scoreless innings against the Miami Marlins in the Nationals’ 3-0 victory. Sure, his performance, combined with three scoreless frames from the bullpen gave the Nationals’ 18 straight shutout innings over the Marlins to open the 2013 season.
The Nationals are just the 13th team in major league history to open a season with back-to-back shutouts, and the first since the Arizona Diamondbacks did it in 2002.
All of those numbers could be explained. Expected, even, from the left-hander who was a Cy Young finalist a season ago and the rest of the Nationals’ talented pitching corps.
But a home run? From Gonzalez?
“Ever since he hit that one last year in Houston, he’s always like ‘Oh, yeah, I got you Zuk, I got you,’” said catcher Kurt Suzuki. “And then I was just shocked. I was like ‘There’s no chance. It’s going to be tough to hit one out tonight.’ He hit one and I was like ‘No way.’ I think everybody was pretty shocked, but it was pretty cool.”
A “lucky swing,” Gonzalez called his second career home run. A first-pitch curveball that came in at 76 mph from Kevin Slowey and hung so long one Nationals player wondered if you could really identify it as a curve.
In the dugout before the start of the inning, as Suzuki prepared to step into the batter’s box, Gonzalez sidled up to manager Davey Johnson.
“You want me to get him over, or go deep?” Gonzalez asked his manager, assuming Suzuki would reach, though he didn’t. Johnson rolled his eyes.
“Just get up there,” he told him.
On a frigid evening where game time temperatures started in the mid-40s and dropped steadily — it was so cold that hitting coach Rick Eckstein caught his pants on fire trying to warm himself by a dugout heater — and the wind blowing in, it seemed as if it’d be a Herculean task for anyone to hit a ball out of Nationals Park Wednesday night.
But Gonzalez did.
“I think he was tired of us not scoring, and he figured he was just going to have to do it himself,” said first baseman Adam LaRoche, who watched several well-struck balls either die in the wind or go foul. “Everybody’s already talking about having to hear about (Gonzalez’s home run) the next two weeks.”
The hit, and the curtain call that ensued as chants of “Gio! Gio!” spread through the 26,269 in attendance, almost overshadowed Gonzalez’s pitching — which was equally as noteworthy, if not nearly as rare.
In his first start of the 2013 season, Gonzalez faced just three batters over the minimum in his six innings of work. He struck out five and walked two while allowing just two hits by pumping his fastball in the low-90s and turning to his trademark curveball early and often.
He battled searing pains in his head that came on suddenly toward the end of his pre-game warmup in the bullpen by taking some medicine and having training assistant John Hsu massage his temples between innings.
“He pitched a heck of a ballgame,” Johnson said. “He made pitches when he had to, and he threw a lot of pitches one inning, but other than that, he was good. If it wasn’t that cold, I’d have probably gone further with him. But it was a good outing.”
The Nationals’ offense followed his lead, too. They added a second run in the sixth on a bizarre play that featured Roger Bernadina colliding with Donovan Solano between first and second base, and Danny Espinosa scoring from third, and a third on an RBI-single from Ryan Zimmerman in the eighth that scored Bryce Harper.
Once Gonzalez’s night was finished, Johnson turned to Ryan Mattheus, Drew Storen and Rafael Soriano to close the game out and seal the Nationals’ first series victory of the season.
“It begins with starting pitching and we’ve seen, the first two games, they have thrown up a lot of zeros and given us a chance to win,” said center fielder Denard Span, who made several nice defensive plays that showed off his range in center in the late innings. “I think if they continue to do that, then once the bats get rolling it should be a lot of fun.”