- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 22, 2012

The Washington Nationals paid a heavy price for Gio Gonzalez last winter, shipping four well-regarded players to Oakland to obtain the left-hander and immediately signing him to a lucrative contract extension.

It was a transaction that opened some eyes in the midst of the Hot Stove League, but few could have expected it to have a greater impact on the 2012 pennant race than the staggering deals the Angels gave to Albert Pujols and C.J. Wilson or the Tigers’ big-money move for Prince Fielder. Several months later, though, those three players likely will be sitting at home this October while Gonzalez leads the Nationals into the playoffs.

For the invariably team-first Gonzalez, the postseason games that lie ahead remain the biggest deal in a season full of them. But even he took time after Washington’s 10-4 victory over the Milwaukee Brewers on Saturday made him the first 20-game winner in the majors this year to reflect on an individual accomplishment no one predicted heading into this season.

“This is a childhood dream,” Gonzalez said. “But at the same to do it with a team that’s in first place, makes it that much better.”

Of course, the Nationals likely would not be in first place without Gonzalez’s remarkable contributions, and the milestones he reached Saturday only served to further raise his profile as the Washington reduced its magic number to clinch the NL East to six.

First came his 200th strikeout, making him the first Washington pitcher to hit that mark since the immortal Walter Johnson in 1916. Though D.C. has predominantly experienced either bad baseball or no baseball since the Big Train led the Senators to the 1924 World Series title, 96 years is a long time to wait. The same goes for that 20-win mark, the most here since Bob Porterfield won 22 in 1953.

Though pitcher wins aren’t as valued as they once were around the game, the number 20 maintains a certain cachet. Only six pitchers reached it the last three seasons, and that group is a short list of starters considered the game’s best — most notably Justin Verlander, C.C. Sabathia, Roy Halladay.

Few would have considered Gonzalez in the same breath entering this season, but his work in 2012 in the wake of two excellent if low-profile seasons in Oakland certainly is moving him into the conversation. In a three-year span, Gonzalez has seen his win total rise from 15 to 16 to 20; his ERA fall from 3.23 to 3.12 to 2.84; and his strikeout total rise from 171 to 197 to 201.

Such consistency, especially taken across two different leagues, has opened eyes around the game.

“No question about it,” said Nationals manager Davey Johnson. “My thing is hits per inning. That tells you what kind of pitcher and stuff he has. And his are phenomenal [143 in 193⅓ innings]. I don’t think I’ve ever had somebody that’s had that few hits per inning.”

Saturday was merely more of the same. Gonzalez started the day strong, cruising through a hot Brewers lineup for three innings with minimal difficulty. Then his teammates jumped in, as they have all season, providing Gonzalez an insurmountable lead. The Nats’ hitters have given Gonzalez a staff-high 6.3 runs per game of support this season, and they outdid themselves this time.

Washington batted around in the third inning, scoring three times to knock out rookie starter Wily Peralta (who had allowed four runs in 20 innings in his previous three big-league starts) and welcome Livan Hernandez back to the Nationals Park mound. The rotund right-hander managed to end the initial threat by getting Kurt Suzuki to fly to left on a 62 mph curveball with the bases loaded, but his former teammates roughed him up in the fourth.

First Ryan Zimmerman, then Ian Desmond hammered no-doubt three-run homers before Brewers manager Ron Roenicke finally pulled the plug on Hernandez. Staked to a 9-0 lead, Gonzalez simply needed to complete five innings to collect his 20th win in his second attempt.

A Bryce Harper error opened the door for a pair of unearned Milwaukee runs in the sixth, but that was the extent of the trouble Gonzalez faced. At least until he caught his spikes in the mound following through on a pitch in the seventh and fell flat on his face.

“A perfect 10,” said an unsympathetic Desmond. “I’m just glad he didn’t mess up his hair.”

Make no mistake, Gonzalez is beloved in the Nationals’ clubhouse. His locker was decorated with $20 bills after the game, anonymous donations to commemorate his victory total. Reliever Ryan Mattheus departed the clubhouse wearing a Gonzalez No. 47 T-shirt from this summer’s All-Star Game.

The lefty from South Florida won his new teammates over almost immediately in spring training with his work ethic and outgoing nature. His work on the mound since Opening Day has only deepened the respect for him inside the clubhouse.

“He’s a great person,” said Zimmerman. “He comes ready to work every day, and every time it’s his turn to go out there, he’s ready. He obviously has a great personality. I think that’s kind of the way this whole team is, though. He fit in perfectly with all of us.”

There’s no question Gonzalez is thrilled to be a part of what’s happening in Washington. He’s well aware of what general manager Mike Rizzo gave up to bring him to town, and that knowledge has helped drive him to the best season of his life.

“This to me is like saying a thank you to Rizzo for taking a chance with me and giving me an opportunity to play in this great organization,” he said. “… And I’m not going to stop here. I’m going to continue to try to do my best every year.”

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