Trouble seemed to dart around Nationals Park.
Under gray skies after a two-hour, 26-minute rain delay Sunday, Gio Gonzalez fought the New York Mets and, principally, himself. Prone to bouts of wildness, the Washington Nationals’ left-hander dodged and ducked danger over 5.2 innings much in the same way he shimmies to music during pregame warm-ups.
What Gonzalez’s performance lacked in dominance he compensated for in effectiveness and, in the process, provided another way for the Nationals to measure this season’s remarkable surge to the top of the National League East as they defeated the Mets 5-2. “His hitting,” Nationals manager Davey Johnson quipped, “was better than his pitching.”
The 5.2 good-enough innings from Gonzalez earned his 16th victory of the season. That surpassed Livan Hernandez’s 15 wins in 2005 for most in a season by a Nationals pitcher.
No, wins aren’t a fashionable statistic in an era fond of reducing players to algorithms. But to surpass the mark, established by Hernandez on a team that finished 81-81 and played at Robert F. Kennedy Stadium, with 40 games remaining in the regular season underscores the progress of a squad still growing accustomed to playing in a pennant race with Major League Baseball’s best record of 75-46.
“This is definitely an accomplishment we all did together,” Gonzalez said. “This wasn’t all me.”
After dark clouds finished scouring the ballpark with rain, the crowd of 33,764 still clutched umbrellas and wore ponchos as it cheered the final innings of the Los Angeles Dodgers’ 5-0 victory over the Atlanta Braves on the television in center field that helped push the Nationals’ division lead to five games. The Braves, of course, open a key three-game series in Washington on Monday, trailing the Nationals by five games.
Impatient murmurs became claps and chants as 45 minutes passed without rain or the team of groundskeepers to remove the tarp. The crowd wanted baseball.
In the clubhouse, Gonzalez stretched at 12:30 p.m. and prepared as usual for a 1:35 p.m. start that, after the extended delay, looked to leave him like rubber band held taut too long. When he finally took the mound at 4 p.m., his mid-90s velocity came along. But his command didn’t, as 43 of his 110 pitches were balls.
He needed 27 pitches to emerge from the first inning and strand two men. The Mets recorded at least one hit off Gonzalez in each inning as he regularly missed high and Johnson described him as “really wild.” Each time Gonzalez found a way to limit the damage, thinking constantly about keeping the Mets close.
Take the fourth, when slight Ronny Cedeno, the journeyman shortstop, lined a pitch over Jayson Werth’s head in right field that caromed off the wall. Werth juggled the ball for an instant and Cedeno zipped into third with a triple ahead of the throw.
Then Gonzalez, who scattered seven hits, two walks and one run, reverted to the form that’s made him a staple of the Nationals’ rotation. He struck out Jason Bay, making $18.1 million this season to accompany his .155 batting average, swinging. Kelly Shoppach flied out to Werth. Then Jeremy Hefner, the Mets‘ starting pitcher, struck out swinging to end the threat.
The one bit of danger Gonzalez couldn’t avoid was Johnson. The pitcher’s run finally ended in the sixth after he walked Shoppach on a 94-mph fastball, and Johnson summoned Craig Stammen from the bullpen.
Gonzalez handed the ball over reluctantly and walked to the dugout, head bowed and lips curled, until he nodded to the crowd before he disappeared.
“He did all right,” Johnson said, “just not to his standards.”