ST. LOUIS — When a pitcher’s control deserts him, the 18-foot diameter of the mound transforms into a lonely island. Gio Gonzalez understands the feeling.
The season in which the Washington Nationals left-hander rolled up 21 victories that pushed him into contention for the Cy Young award veered outside the strike zone Sunday. Way outside.
Gonzalez fought through seven walks — his most since June 11, 2011 with the Oakland Athletics — but somehow managed to keep the Nationals in Game 1 of the division series against the St. Louis Cardinals at Busch Stadium.
“I was just bearing down and trying to throw strikes,” said Gonzalez, who managed to get just 59 of his 110 pitches over five innings in the strike zone. “I couldn’t find it and then, somehow, someway, I found it and gave our team a chance to win.”
Little Gonzalez did in his first postseason start was attractive. Eleven hitters came to the plate before he threw a first-pitch strike. In the second, he walked four Cardinals including pitcher Adam Wainwright. A wild pitch to bring home a run interrupted that at-bat.
The bizarre part was Gonzalez allowed just one hit.
“Oh, man, that was a rough one, especially when you’re grinding it out pitch after pitch,” Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo said. “Gio made pitches when he had to make pitches. He gave us a chance to win.”
All that came as one of the men dealt to the Athletics for Gonzalez over the winter, Tom Milone, tossed six innings of one-run ball in what became a 5-4 loss to the Detroit Tigers earlier Sunday.
At 54 degrees, the game was the coldest Gonzalez, a Florida native, pitched in since May 17, 2011. But he couldn’t pinpoint the reason behind his game-long struggles, mechanical or otherwise. A simple choice presented itself.
“You can lay down, you can throw in the towel,” said first baseman Adam LaRoche, who aided Gonzalez with frequent visits, “or you can drive through it and find ways to get out.”
Control has long been an issue for Gonzalez. He’s walked five or more men 15 times in 121 career starts. The problem receded this season, as he walked 3.4 men per nine innings, by far the lowest mark of his career.
Manager Davey Johnson wondered if this was one of those games where Gonzalez’s first 50 or so pitches were shaky, then he settles down. Such a performance isn’t unusual for him, along with the confidence he will find a solution.
The manager was one hitter away from warming up Craig Stammen in the walk-filled second.
“This was a real test on a big stage,” Johnson said. “But he kept us in there, and that’s what your ace does.”
Added reliever Ryan Mattheus: “An ace gets big outs. It wasn’t the prettiest line, but we all know in the clubhouse that he gave us a chance to win. He definitely pitched better than the line says.”