ST. LOUIS — Gio Gonzalez trembled as he walked into the interview room at Busch Stadium on Saturday afternoon.
The first playoff start of his professional career was 24 hours away. He stood as the ace of the pitching staff that had been the best in baseball for the majority of the 2012 season. It’d be normal — natural even — if the left-hander was a little nervous.
“Hold on guys, let me heat up real fast,” said Gonzalez, a Hialeah, Fla., native who wasn’t expecting the fall-like – if not darn near wintry – temperatures in St. Louis this weekend. He rubbed his hands together to create a little heat.
“It’s not my nerves,” he added with a laugh to the roomful of reporters. “It’s just the cold.”
But Gonzalez will have to battle both, as well as the right-handed-heavy lineup of the St. Louis Cardinals on Sunday afternoon when the Nationals send him to the mound to open the organization’s first playoff series.
The experience is a new one for Gonzalez and most of his teammates. The same as taking batting practice in 48-degree temperatures on the eve of the playoffs was new. Gonzalez’s reaction to the Game 1 assignment was succinct: “Backflips. Cartwheels. Excitement.”
But Saturday, the day itself, wasn’t different than any other for the left-hander. He came to the ballpark, he got his hair cut, he smiled, he laughed, he exchanged barbs with teammates, shagged fly balls during batting practice, and he left for the night with nothing but his thoughts to prepare for the biggest game of his life.
“He’s always antsy and he talks all the time,” said third baseman Ryan Zimmerman. “So he’s not talking any more than he usually does. He’s dancing around, he’s basically just doing the same things he always does. It’d be hard to get a read on him if he was different because he’s the happiest person. He seems like he’s ready to go.”
“I’ve never had a pitcher get on me the day he’s pitching because I wasn’t smiling,” said Nationals manager Davey Johnson. “Gio has the same temperament no matter how big the game is. He just enjoys going out there and expressing his talent.”
Since the Nationals traded for him this offseason, since he signed a contract extension and solidified his place in the team’s future, and since his Cy Young-worthy season commenced, Gonzalez has not missed a single start. And he’s spent plenty of time expressing the aforementioned talent.
But now there’s a wrench thrown in. Now there’s not only any additional nerves or emotions that comes with starting the first playoff game in decades for a D.C. baseball team, but the fact that it’ll be his first in-game work since Sept. 27.
“Pitchers nowadays, they throw everyday,” said Johnson, who had slated Gonzalez to make his final regular-season start this past Tuesday but scratched him after the Nationals clinched the National League East title Monday night. “That keeps them really sharp. This time of year, you know, a few extra days, with all of the excitement, (he’s) feeling great.”
One of the Nationals’ biggest question marks in the NLDS is they have so few players with playoff experience. On the starting staff, only Edwin Jackson has been there before. In the bullpen, only Michael Gonzalez.
“It’s definitely different,” Jackson said, thinking back to his first playoffs with the Tampa Bay Rays in 2008. “It’s playoffs. But the more you can be relaxed, the better off you’ll be. If you get caught up in the emotions, you’ll either be too fast, or try to do too much, or get too geeked or too amped up. You just have to go out there and have relaxed aggressiveness.”
The trick, Jackson said, will be getting through that first pitch and realizing that the game is the same, even if the stage is greater. Gonzalez is often emotional on the mound, though he’s toned things down some since coming to the Nationals, and processing those emotions appropriately will be important for him to begin his playoffs on the right foot.