NEW YORK — Kurt Suzuki strode to the mound with a purpose. He stared at Gio Gonzalez and his body language gave away just how steamed the Washington Nationals’ catcher was at his left-hander.
His mask obscured his words from view, but Suzuki threw his arms out to the side a few times and shrugged his shoulders a few times. His animated gestures made it obvious he meant business.
“He knows,” Suzuki said. “He knows why I come out and try to calm him down.”
Gonzalez was working in the first inning of the Nationals’ 13-2 thrashing of the Mets on Sunday when he got ahead of Mets’ all-world third baseman David Wright 0-2. Seven pitches later, Wright walked to first base to give the Mets . Suzuki immediately made his way out to see Gonzalez.
“I just said ‘Go right at these guys. Get ahead. Attack the strike zone. Put them on the defensive a little bit. Just focus on the glove,’” Suzuki said later.
“He’s trying to get me back,” Gonzalez said. “It’s like a big brother talking to his younger brother. ‘Hey, pound the strike zone, let’s figure out what we got going. Focus and hit my glove. I’m going to call pitches and I want you to execute the pitches.’”
So, how’d it go from there?
“Seven shutout,” as Suzuki put it.
Gonzalez turned in a superb performance on Sunday, tossing seven scoreless innings and lowering his ERA in the month of June to a remarkable 1.79. Gifted some of the run support that has been lacking for the Nationals starters this season, Gonzalez did not waste it.
“He’s unbelievable,” said manager Davey Johnson. “His curveball, and his changeup (Sunday) was an awfully good pitch, too. When he especially keeps the fastball down, he seemed to get a better fastball as the game went on.”
But it is always interesting to see Suzuki and Gonzalez work together. Suzuki has caught Gonzalez ever since he arrived in the major leagues, and while he has a different relationship and rapport with all of the Nationals’ pitchers, it’s obvious he has no problem telling Gonzalez just what he thinks when he thinks it.
Or, as Ryan Zimmerman said with a laugh, “Zuk is like his babysitter out there.”
“I’ve been with Zuk for quite a while, man,” Gonzalez said with a laugh. “He’s allowed to go out there and crack some wise jokes… It’s a little bit of both (pumping me up and chewing me out). A little pump, a little chewing out.”
“I really don’t get on him much,” Suzuki said. “Sometimes I do, but I just made sure (Sunday) that I really stayed on him, because I want him to do well.”
What Gonzalez did on Sunday better than he has all season was throw strikes. He threw 84 of them, to be exact — a career-high numbers — and 71 percent of the pitches he threw were strikes.
For a pitcher who came to the Nationals with a reputation for wildness, and who Suzuki joked the career-high in strikes must’ve been somewhere around 50, it was a startlingly effective afternoon.
“That’s still a shock to me to get that many strikes,” Gonzalez said. “I’m used to seeing more balls than strikes. It’s a change for me. It’s just me working harder with Zuk and Steve McCatty just trying to pound the strike zone.”
“He wasn’t nibbling around,” Suzuki said. “He was going right at you. That’s when he does best. When he gets ahead, and they don’t know if the curveball’s coming and (this year) he’s throwing a good changeup. When he puts them on their heels it’s a whole different ballgame.”
In 2012, Gonzalez was an All-Star for the Nationals, a 21-game winner who had a 2.92 ERA through his first 17 starts of the season. After 17 starts in 2013, Gonzalez’s ERA sits at 3.09. Since the month of April ended, it’s 2.09.
“Obviously, Gio has got the stuff,” Zimmerman said. “He proved it last year to be one of the best pitchers in the league. We say it about (Stephen Strasburg) all the time, but Gio is that good, too. The stuff he has and what he’s already done in the game, it’s kind of hard to think he can be even better.”