The minute Gio Gonzalez's left foot hit the dirt on his way out of the dugout for the ninth inning Friday night, the cheers began. They cascaded down on him. Nearly 30,000 people on their feet at Nationals Park chanting his name.
"Let's go, Gio!" They screamed with methodical rhythm. They got louder when he struck out Carlos Beltran and brought the Nationals within two outs of a 10-0 victory over the St. Louis Cardinals. Their 80th win, as many as they'd reached in all of the 2011 season and one shy of the team record, was in sight.
"Man," Gonzalez said, a Gatorade shower and shaving cream pie to the face later. "That was just one of those things you can't explain. It felt like a boost of energy (hearing them cheer). Kind of like having a Red Bull right there in the ninth."
The cheers faded into chants of "Gio! Gio!" when Allen Craig flew out to left field with two on for the second out. And as Bryce Harper squeezed Shane Robinson's fly ball, the 119th pitch Gonzalez threw in a night manager Davey Johnson was trying to keep him under 120, they exploded.
Gonzalez let the sound wash over him. He smiled at catcher Kurt Suzuki and reveled in his first career shutout. He'd spent the entire game listening to his mother, Yoly Gonzalez, scream at him from behind home plate. For nine innings his view was of Suzuki, home plate umpire Mike Muchlinksi and his mother.
"You could hear, every at-bat: 'Swing!' " Gonzalez said, noticing his dad Max was nowhere in sight. Unable to sit he wandered the stadium watching his son's performance on TVs around the park. "I was like, 'Oh God, somebody's got to keep her quiet over there.' ... It was like, 'Uh-oh, can't disappoint you, ma.' "
"I wanted to kill him," Yoly Gonzalez said with a laugh as she waited outside the clubhouse for Gio. "He was making me so nervous."
Powered by an offense that rapped out 12 hits off St. Louis ace Adam Wainwright — including at least one by seven of their nine starters — and has outscored the vaunted Cardinals' 18-1 in the first two games of this series, Gonzalez allowed one runner to get past second base all night. While Jayson Werth, Bryce Harper and Ryan Zimmerman were combining for seven hits, six runs and five RBI, Gonzalez was biding his time.
He watched during a 30-minute bottom of the third inning when the Nationals chased Wainwright from the game and blew open a two-run game into a six-run one. He walked the first two batters of the top of the fourth but got the double play he needed right after it to get himself back on track. In nine innings he allowed only five hits, walked three and struck out eight, plenty with his trademark curveball that kept the Cardinals' hitters flailing. He considered calling it a day after eight, but Johnson told him he was going out for the ninth.
"Now's the time," Johnson said, when asked about Gonzalez's recent endurance that has resulted in two complete game an eight-inning effort in the month of August. "Now's the time when you lean on 'em and give 'em a little more."
Gonzalez glanced into right field with one out in the ninth to see Ryan Mattheus warming, at which point he decided his manager would "have to kill me first," before he let someone else finish his game.
"I expect him to do that every night," said first baseman Adam LaRoche. "I really do. I think he's that good. I think he's capable of that. I feel like every night he has the chance to go nine shutout innings with the stuff he's got."
As the Nationals' players milled about the clubhouse post-game, the televisions were all tuned to the Atlanta Braves' game against the Philadelphia Phillies. The clubhouse erupted when the normally infallible Craig Kimbrel blew a one-run lead in the ninth and as John Mayberry Jr.'s three-run homer dipped over the left field wall at Turner Field, shouts of "He got him!" brought a smile to Ryan Zimmerman's face, mid-sentence.
Moments later, a 6½ game lead in the National League East once again belonged to Washington. Their five-game losing streak from a week ago seemed like a distant memory. As they enjoyed the final minutes of August they could ponder something they'd never before considered as a franchise: their magic number to clinch their division was 25.
"We have a long ways to go and we haven't done anything yet," Zimmerman said. "But what we have done is give this city a baseball team to cheer for. And they've wanted that for a long time.
"We're not taking anything for granted, we're not satisfied with what we've done. We've put ourselves in a good position, and I think if we can take anything out of what we've done that's all we can take. The moment you become satisfied or become happy with what you've done then a team like the Braves is going to get hot and catch you. We've just got to keep working and keep going."
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