The moment Gio Gonzalez walked off the mound in the seventh inning Sunday afternoon, he figured his day was probably done. Despite a fairly low pitch count, and regardless of the fact that he’d started with five perfect innings, he was pitching a one-run game and was scheduled to lead off the bottom of the inning.
He knew who his manager was, and how he liked to handle these kinds of situations.
So it was that Washington Nationals manager Davey Johnson pulled his left-hander in the hope of adding some offense, and watched the game devolve into a 2-1 loss to the Chicago Cubs over the final two innings.
“I’m always going to try to add on,” Johnson said. “It’s just the way I manage.
“Obviously, I’d have been better off in hindsight, but I have all the confidence in the world in my bullpen. They just didn’t do it. Chalk it up to me. … You don’t like it? Chalk it up to me. Didn’t work out.”
When it was over, as the Nationals were left to digest dropping two of three in the series to the Cubs before boarding a cross-country flight, there were other frustrations to ponder. For one, their mild-mannered catcher had been ejected for arguing a called third strike that was well outside the zone — a theme all afternoon.
“It started with the 0-1 pitch,” Kurt Suzuki said of his at-bat with one out in the ninth inning. “I felt that pitch was off and I didn’t say much. But in a big part of the game, I’ve got my emotions running. I battled the count to get back to 2-2 and put myself in a pretty good hitting situation. For something like that to happen, I felt it was a ball. You guys probably had a pretty good view on replay.”
The pitch was indeed well outside of the zone, as were 10 pitches home plate umpire John Tumpane called as strikes to right-handed batters and six to left-handed batters on the day, according to PitchF/X data.
Suzuki’s first career ejection came shortly after his throwing error brought home what would stand as the winning run. As Suzuki tried to quell a double steal and catch Alfonso Soriano at third base in the top of the ninth, his throw hit off the bat of Welington Castillo, spiked into the ground and rolled into foul territory. The catcher could only watch as Soriano walked home to make it 2-1.
“That’s the first time I’ve ever done something like that,” said Suzuki. “Just a freak thing that happened.”
And a few stalls down, Drew Storen stood in front of his locker, his right arm encased in ice, trying to explain how he felt he’d cost Gonzalez a hard-earned victory. He entered to pitch the eighth and surrendered a leadoff single to catcher Dioner Navarro. Storen watched as two outs moved pinch runner Travis Wood to third and a ground ball up the middle by Starlin Castro tied the game.
“After Gio throws a great start, to go out there and have that beat you, it’s tough,” Storen said. “You gotta get the first guy out. That’s the main thing. … You do that, you have no problems.”
“We got beat,” Johnson said. “Gio pitched a heck of a ballgame. We didn’t make the pitches in the eighth inning. I’ve got a guy out there that saved 43 games [in 2011]. I’m not going to put this all on Gio. These guys can do it. We didn’t do it. But we’re fully capable of doing it, and it’s a long season.”
It also could have been a different story for the Nationals if they had been able to mount much of anything offensively. After a game-opening double by Denard Span and an RBI double by Ryan Zimmerman to drive him in, the Nationals had three total hits.
The sun-splashed ballpark was drenched in pink, in honor of Mother’s Day and for breast cancer awareness, and the 38,788 in attendance gave Gonzalez a nice ovation when his perfecto went kaput on an infield single by Navarro. But outside of his performance, they had little to cheer.
And the Nationals, who dropped to 20-17, were left only to wonder about what could have been.
“Anytime you lose a ballgame, especially have the lead late and lose the ballgame, it’s a missed opportunity,” Johnson said. “No doubt about it. Regardless of the strike zone, we didn’t swing the bats that good. We didn’t really have that many opportunities to score. That’s why when we did have an opportunity to score, I was gonna go for it.”