NEW YORK — Gio Gonzalez commanded the mound at Citi Field on Monday night. He dictated every movement that flowed from it, and almost every result just more than 60 feet away from it. So it was with startling helplessness that he stared at the first base line in the seventh inning. “Foul!” he screamed, hoping his plea would change what had happened moments before.
As Zach Lutz stood on first base, quietly accepting congratulations from his coach, and Adam LaRoche pleaded from his knees with first base umpire John Hirschbeck to reverse his call, or pretend he could reverse time, the scoreboard changed.
The ‘0’ that had stood so boldly in the New York Mets’ hit column was replaced with a ‘1’ and just like that Gonzalez’s bid to pitch the first no-hitter in Washington Nationals’ history was finished. In the Nationals’ 9-0 blowout of the Mets, a one-hit shutout would have to do.
“That,” manager Davey Johnson said, “was a brilliant performance.”
Later, as Gonzalez forced a smile and shook his head about the chance of a lifetime that wasn’t to be, Lutz’s base hit off the end of the bat connecting smack in the middle of the chalk on the first base line and just out of the reach of LaRoche’s dive, the first baseman approached him. Head down, LaRoche threw his arm around his pitcher.
“I’m sorry,” LaRoche said. “I’m sorry.”
“He tried,” Gonzalez said, smiling wider. “You’re alright. I love this guy. He plays his heart out for me every game.
“It’s a bittersweet moment. You’re happy you got the win. Team did great. Everybody looked alive today. It’s a sad moment when you lose a no-hitter down the line.”
In a performance that defined domination, Gonzalez faced 30 hitters. He retired 27 of them, walking Daniel Murphy in the second at-bat of the game and then issuing a free pass to Lutz in the ninth. He struck out eight.
When it was over, he smacked his right hand into the palm of his glove a few times and turned to shake hands with catcher Wilson Ramos.
If the seventh inning had been accompanied by a stiffer cross-field breeze, even, perhaps that final scene would’ve been very different.
“Just some good luck right there,” said Lutz, a September call-up for the Mets.
As it was, it stood as an important Nationals victory, their 20th in the last 29 games. As they keep their dimming playoff hopes alive, the booming win — helped by five home runs before the fifth inning was out — moved them back to within seven games of the second wild card spot.
In a season in which so little has gone the way they wanted when they wanted it, the Nationals put together perhaps their most complete game, smoking the ball to all fields, devastating their opponent with their starting pitching and playing crisp defense. The rub, of course, is that it happened on Sept. 9, with just 19 games to go and a possibly mountainous climb to reach that second wild card spot.
But setting aside the context of the season for just a moment, it was a singular beauty.
“He was amazing,” Ramos said. “When I saw Gio for the first time when he came to this team, I saw him all the time aggressive, aggressive. Today I remembered when he came here for the first time.
“It’s been a long time since I’ve seen Gio throw like that and be aggressive on the mound like that. Tonight, I was impressed to see him back.”
Gonzalez can occasionally get in his own way on the mound. It’s his one “inconsistency,” as third baseman Ryan Zimmerman put it. If his command wavers, his pitch counts can rise rapidly in the early innings, often precluding him from going as deep as his later results would allow. He can get out of whack, and then click back in.
But there was no such pattern followed on this night. Staked to a 2-0 lead behind Denard Span and Zimmerman’s back-to-back game-opening homers, Gonzalez pounded the zone largely from the get-go. After five innings he’d thrown just 62 pitches. After six innings he’d thrown 72.
Using his fastball and his changeup, primarily, Gonzalez mixed in his trademark curve sparingly, but when necessary, like to strike out Wilmer Flores to end the fifth, and Lucas Duda to end the first, and to get Eric Young Jr. to end the sixth.
The closest any Nationals player had ever come was Ramon Ortiz, who took a no-hitter into the ninth inning against the St. Louis Cardinals on Labor Day in 2006. After about the fifth inning, the Nationals began to sense the anticipation surrounding the moment.
In the dugout, pitching coach Steve McCatty gave Gonzalez the same message each inning. “Don’t change anything. Keep it going.” Ramos reiterated that point.
First base coach Tony Tarasco told the outfielders to be aware of what was going on. If a play was close or even remotely makeable, don’t be afraid to slide or dive. Do whatever you can, he instructed. The infielders stayed on their toes, too.
“It’s fun to be a part of something like that,” said Zimmerman, who was joined by Jayson Werth (three-run), Tyler Moore (solo), Ramos (three-run) and Span with homers on the night.
“It makes you want to make a play even more, or do something to help him out. Because everyone wants to be a part of history.”
It was part of why LaRoche was so downtrodden. He normally shades away from the line with right-handers up, estimating that there’s maybe two or three times in an entire season a right-hander will flare one down the first base line.
There was little, if anything, more he could’ve done to snare Lutz’s ball. That fact didn’t cushion the blow for him.
“Ah it just makes me sick,” he said, noting that Hirschbeck showed him exactly where he saw the ball hit the chalk line and home plate umpire Bob Davidson also immediately shouted that it had hit the line.
“Of course after that you know he was going to shut them down for the next couple innings. So close… It (stinks). I hate it for him. It kind of ruins a great game, great offensive game, great, obviously, pitched game.”
Gonzalez didn’t watched the replay after the game. He had no desire, he said, preferring to let the moment remain in the past. He clicked his tongue in an “Aw, shucks,” manner and tried to focus on the first one-hit shutout of his career — and just the second individually-pitched one in Nationals history.
He tried not to focus on what could’ve been.
“I think it was just one of those things where if it’s your day, it’s your day,” Gonzalez said. “It’s one of those things you just tip your cap and keep it going.”