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.
“I think he’ll be pumped up, but you know, with Gio, pumped up is a good thing for him,” said catcher Kurt Suzuki, who’s caught Gonzalez in 69 more big league games than anyone else. “I think he likes that attention. I think he likes that everybody’s here and the focus is on him. He’s in there, he wants to be that guy. I think it’s going to be good. I think Gio will feed off of that. He likes the energy. The postseason, obviously the first one, there’s going to be nerves. But I think Gio will be fine.”
“He’ll be alright,” Jackson said. “I’ll tell him, ‘Just breathe. Just relax. Do what you do.’”
What that means is perform in a manner that only the game’s elite did this season. The Cardinals have spent the season making mincemeat of plenty of left-handed pitching. But Gonzalez has been doing the same against right-handed batters. In his only start against the Cardinals this season, Gonzalez held St. Louis’ right-handers to 2-for-23 (.087) and pitched a shutout.
“He’s good,” said Cardinals manager Mike Matheny. “I mean, there’s no getting around it. Each one of our guys on offense has to have a very clear approach of what he wants to do and what he needs to do in order to try to be successful.”
Ultimately, the Nationals don’t know how any of their playoff virgins will react until they throw them out there and they get a chance to figure it out for themselves. The same goes for Gonzalez on extra rest, or pitching in temperatures perhaps even colder than in Oakland in the summer.
“The only thing we can do is wait to see tomorrow,” Suzuki said.
“I heard it’s going to be 65 and sunny,” Gonzalez quipped. “So turn the heaters on.”
• Amanda Comak can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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