MIAMI — Gio Gonzalez took the mound at Marlins Park Tuesday night for what, technically, was his fourth spring training start. But in five scoreless, often dominant, innings for Team USA against Puerto Rico in the World Baseball Classic, Gonzalez hardly took the form of a pitcher in pre-season.
In Team USA’s 7-1 victory over Puerto Rico that set their date for Thursday with the Dominican Republic, Gonzalez was the opening headliner to a game that was David Wright’s to stake claim to by its end.
“Gio set the tone early,” said Wright, who was 2-for-5 with five RBIs and came to the plate with the bases loaded on three different occasions. “Just absolutely shoving out there.”
Pitching in front of a hometown Miami crowd, Gonzalez was as good as manager Joe Torre and the rest of Team USA could’ve hoped when it tabbed the Nationals’ 21-game winner for their rotation. While he will not be available to pitch in the rest of the second round of the tournament, should Team USA advance to the finals in San Francisco, Gonzalez will be at their disposal.
“It’s still a dream,” Gonzalez said after the game. “Just to play for these guys and to represent Team USA and be here in Miami. A small-town kid from Hialeah, Fla., it’s truly a blessing. You couldn’t have scripted it any better.”
After what has likely been a difficult few weeks for Gonzalez, following the late January report linking him to Miami’s Biogenesis clinic and all that has followed while he’s maintained an adamant denial of involvement, he made the transition from spring training to big-game start seem impossibly easy.
He tuned out his nerves and the noise from the 32,872 who packed Marlins Park — many rooting loudly for Team USA — by taking advice from pitching coach Greg Maddux and focusing on something simple.
Gonzalez admitted Tuesday night that the noise and the atmosphere during the Nationals’ 2012 playoff run “overwhelmed” him at times. Maddux told him to think about something as routine as fielding a ground ball, or as serene as going fishing. Whatever he chose to turn his mind to, it worked.
He showed no rust and no jitters. He located his 94-mph fastball with ease and regularity. He broke off his trademark curveball when he needed to mix it up, and, perhaps when hitters were least expecting it, he began to mix in his changeup in the fourth and fifth innings.
Gonzalez allowed just three hits over the five innings of work, striking out five and walking none. Once a pitcher with a reputation for command issues, almost 70 percent of the pitches Gonzalez threw on Tuesday night were strikes.
“I think (Nationals manager Davey Johnson and pitching coach Steve McCatty) were helping me out a lot in spring training,” Gonzalez said. “And to come over here and have Greg Maddux give me a few pointers? When you get some of the greats of baseball to help you out… that’s the best you can do.”
He got through the five innings on 69 pitches, keeping him on pace in his progress to build toward Opening Day with the Nationals, and he gave Team USA exactly what it needed, leaving with a 3-0 lead in hand. As he often does during the Nationals’ season with Johnson, Gonzalez made his way over to Torre a few times and made sure his manager was smiling.
“The way these guys are playing, I may smile a little bit more, too,” Torre said.
Gonzalez was relieved by Jeremy Affeldt at the start of the sixth inning and, with the help of Wright, the offense expanded that lead in the later innings.
The Nationals held Gonzalez back from the first round of the WBC, preferring that he get three starts with them in camp before releasing him into the care of Torre and Maddux so this was his first appearance in the tournament. His Nationals teammates were watching.
“Do it, Gio,” tweeted shortstop Ian Desmond. “That changeup is comin’ with it tonight.”
“Congrats to @GioGonzalez47 who absolutely carved tonight!” tweeted outfielder Bryce Harper. “Way to cowboy-up bud!”
Before the game, Gonzalez’s Nationals teammate Ross Detwiler talked about his experience in the WBC and how much pride he has in representing his country. Detwiler will be available to pitch on Thursday when Team USA takes on the Dominican Republic, as will Ryan Vogelsong, but Torre said the team has not decided who will start Team USA’s third and final game of the round.