KANSAS CITY, Mo. — On the day Gio Gonzalez made his final start of the season’s first half, he wandered about the clubhouse in a bright red T-shirt that proudly proclaimed “Strasburg Knows.”
The Motown tunes were cranked up - “best music day of the week,” bench coach Randy Knorr called it - and the Nationals’ boisterous left-hander began to offer his usual greeting to anyone and everyone who made it into his sight line.
“With Gio all you have to do is grin and he’s gonna be grinning at you,” said Nationals manager Davey Johnson. “And he’s gonna be hacked off at you if you’re not grinning back at him.”
It’s a 180-degree turn from what goes on in the clubhouse the day before he pitches. Those are Stephen Strasburg’s starts, days treated like the business meeting they are. Music is not played. Strasburg does not use his time to joke around. The sole goal of the pregame on those days is not to disrupt his focus from the opposing lineup at hand.
“Serious as a heart attack,” Johnson said.
And yet the most common scene in the dugout this season is the one that features the Nationals’ dual aces laughing, talking and dissecting the game. Gio, of course, is generally the one doing most of the talking. More often than not, the conversation ends with Gonzalez regaling Strasburg about the time so-and-so either looked foolish against him, or took him deep. Laughter follows.
“They’re two peas in a pod,” said right-hander Jordan Zimmermann, the one among the trio who actually heads in the All-Star break with the lowest ERA, 2.61.
Strasburg and Gonzalez are constantly linked. Two of the best pitchers in the National League, two of only three pitchers in baseball to average more than 10.4 strikeouts per nine innings in the first half (Detroit’s Max Scherzer is the third). They’ll both represent the Nationals on Tuesday night as All-Stars.
But starting from the most basic of facts - that Strasburg is right-handed and Gonzalez left - they couldn’t be more dissimilar.
“Just totally different personalities,” Johnson said. “But whatever they do, it works for them. You never want to change that. It’s who they are and who they’re comfortable being.”
‘We go about it a different way’
The incubator that is spring training often becomes tiresome and tedious as the days wear on. But the time provides an opportunity for a team to get to know its new parts and figure out how they fit together.
For the top of the Nationals’ rotation, this spring was especially integral. Strasburg and Gonzalez will anchor the Nationals’ staff through at least the 2016 season. Zimmermann will be there, too, at least through 2015. Getting along isn’t imperative for success, but it helps.
“I think you need a little bit of everything for everyone to bond,” Zimmermann said, adding Edwin Jackson’s laid-back persona and Ross Detwiler’s subdued nature. “If you have five guys with the same personality I don’t think it’s going to work out.”
Strasburg is quiet, intense and often brooding - but with a hint of humor when he wants. That’s what Zimmermann was accustomed to, a personality not unlike his own. Asked his first impressions of Gonzalez, Strasburg flashed some of the wit teammates say is there but rarely makes a public appearance. “I thought he was going to be a little bit taller,” Strasburg said, a brief smile crossing his face. “But that’s about it.”
But as much as they’d heard about Gonzalez, they were still ill-prepared for the boisterous nature of a man who readily acknowledges he will talk to anyone. Any. One.
“Finally, I just said, ‘Do you go home and ice your vocal chords at night or what?’” Zimmermann playfully asked. “‘God, you talk so much. Just tone it down a hair.’”
“A lot of my friends back home are like him,” Strasburg said with a shrug. “He just fits right in. I’ll chime in every now and then.
“He goes about it a little differently than I do. It’s fun watching him pitch, and between games we’re just joking around. But I could never go out there and pitch the way he does, and I don’t think he could go out there and pitch the way I do. It’s just different. We go about it in a different way.”
When the Nationals traded for Gonzalez in December, his personality and how he’d get along with Strasburg wasn’t their main concern, but it was a consideration.
Joining a rotation in which there was an unquestioned No. 1 already in place, things could easily have gone wrong.
“You’re talking about a 26-year-old All-Star coming in and everyone saying, ‘You’re the second starter,’ ” general manager Mike Rizzo said. “Maybe a different guy would have said, ‘Uh, second to who?’ But he has enough self-confidence and was comfortable enough to say ‘OK, I get it.’ “
Gonzalez often defers credit to his teammates, and he made a point in spring training to let Zimmermann and Strasburg know he felt they “earned every stripe to be here.”
“I was just grateful to be a part of the rotation,” he said. “It was an honor in itself, in a way.”
Rubbing off on one another
Whether it was part of the plan, both acknowledge they might be rubbing off on one another. Asked what he’s taken from their relationship to this point, Gonzalez quipped, “I’m the lazy one.”
“Stras is the one who’s always in the weight room, doing something to get stronger and better,” he said. “He grabs me and tells me, ‘Let’s go out and run.’ Most people would just say ‘Well, take care of yourself and do that.’ “
And teammates notice that Strasburg, who Bryce Harper called “hilarious,” seems more willing this year to let down his guard and enjoy himself.
“He was a little quieter before,” Zimmermann said. “Now Gio is here and Stras is throwing punches back and throwing jokes up there. It’s good to see.”
Strasburg and Zimmermann live in the same apartment building, so the two, along with Strasburg’s wife and Zimmermann’s fiancee, often spend time together off the field. This year they’ve been texting Gonzalez to get him to join and often discuss how to spend more time together.
The question of whether they’ve gotten out on the golf course, mini- or otherwise, brings a smirk to Strasburg’s face. “He needs to learn golf etiquette first,” he said. “I’m trying to get him to take some lessons in the offseason so I can take his money in spring training.”
During the hourlong media session with the NL All-Stars on Tuesday, Gonzalez - who acknowledged even he was exhausted by the proceedings and quite possibly running out of things to say - looked over midway through his session and marveled at how Strasburg was handling it all. “Look at him right now,” he said. “He’s a thinking man.”
“I was really contemplating getting a recording and just pushing play,” Strasburg cracked. “But it hasn’t been that bad.”
Neither of the two garnered nearly as many cameras as their 19-year-old teammate two tables down, but everyone wanted to talk about their first-place team and how they can maintain things in the second half. Strasburg answered the questions in his usual businesslike manner. Gonzalez tried to.
“I feel like it’s just the tip of the iceberg right now,” Gonzalez said. “We just need to keep working hard, stay healthy and stay hydrated.”
He grabbed the two bottles of Gatorade in front of him and pointed them at the cameras.
“I’m doing a commercial right now,” he shouted.
Strasburg’s gaze the next table over was unflinching.