- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 28, 2016

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

VIERA, Fla. — Don’t ever change, Gio Gonzalez.

Oakland will always be close to my heart because they gave me my first opportunity in the big leagues, and the fans treated me great, but this is now my fifth season with the Nationals, where it was my first time to the playoffs, the first time I won 20 games,” Gonzalez said. “I’ve had an opportunity here to break out even more. The Nationals have been phenomenal to me, from the front office to the coaches to my teammates. I watched some guys grow up here. Some stay, some go, but the memories, the bond that we have built here is incredible. It’s been a great ride and I’ve loved every bit of it.”

You can beat down the Washington Nationals all you want. You can say they’ve underachieved, they’ve fallen short of expectations. You can make fun of them. You can attack them.

But you can’t take the joy — and perspective — out of Gonzalez.

“My personality is what has kept me humble in this game and enjoy every bit of it, so why not stay that way? There’s a reason why not all of us are made the same way. We don’t all have the same personalities, but we have the same instincts and goals, to go out there and try to win games. It is nice to have individual personalities here.

“For me, this is a dream come true, especially for a guy who grew up in Hialeah, Florida, where there weren’t many people who got this far. So, I am enjoying every bit of it. Knowing where I came from and what I went through, makes it all special.”

Gonzalez, 30, was “special” when he got here in the big December 2011 trade that sent prospects Brad Peacock, Tom Milone, Derek Norris and A.J. Cole. who the Nationals have since reacquired, to the Oakland Athletics. One month later, Gonzalez signed a five-year contract extension for $42 million — an extension that expires after this season, with club options for the next two years.

He was the ace of that 2012 National League East championship staff, winning 21 games, with 207 strikeouts and a 2.89 ERA. He finished third in the NL Cy Young voting and won the Warren Spahn Award for the best left-handed pitcher in baseball.

Gonzalez has been productive since then, 32-26, but his ERA has risen each season, from 3.36 to 3.57 to last year’s 3.79 as he continues to struggle with walks. He was eclipsed by the departed Jordan Zimmermann, the attention always paid to Stephen Strasburg and the arrival of Max Scherzer. He, like the Nationals, have fallen short of the expectations following that 2012 season, and they were far short last season with a second-place, 83-win finish.

“I really don’t know what happened last year,” he said. “We competed as hard as we could. It wasn’t our year. We’ve learned to move past that and get ready for this year. We’ve got a new manager, new coaches, new players that are going to help us build a winner. It was sad to see some of the guys I played with here for four years move on, but I am happy they are in better homes and more comfortable. I’m happy for Jordan, and the other guys, but I want to focus on what we want to accomplish. Like Dusty says, we hope we can stay healthy.

As far as his place in the rotation, Gonzalez said, “It doesn’t just stop with Max. You’ve got Stephen Strasburg, another phenomenal starter, when Jordan was here he was another big name. Tanner Roark won us 15 games. That should never be forgotten. Everyone in this rotation is an ace. Just to be part of a staff so amazing, I appreciate that I am part of it.

“Our pitching, we are unique, with different mentalities,” Gonzalez said.

Which brings us to one of the remarkable stories taking place here in the Nationals‘ clubhouse in spring training — the unique friendship between two very different, yet very similar players in Gonzalez and Jonathan Papelbon.

Their lockers are next to each other, and they can often be seen joking around, sometimes wrestling with each other — the starting pitcher who is as outgoing perhaps as any player in the major leagues and the reliever who is so volatile and unpredictable that he infamously fought with the team’s biggest star, Bryce Harper, last season. But they are similar in the sense that both show their emotions for all to see.

Gonzalez said the same thing I wrote last year, after the choking incident, when everyone declared that Papelbon was a clubhouse “cancer.” I was the only one who wrote just the opposite — that while choking a teammate in few view of everyone was ill-advised, the newly-arrived reliever was well-liked and respected by his Nationals teammates.

“He is a good teammate,” Gonzalez said. “A lot of people in this clubhouse appreciate Pap. He is well liked. A personality like his is needed in this clubhouse.

“Pap is a veteran presence, and grew up in a time when that era of player is disappearing. You want those guys around. I root for Pap. Everyone has their own dreams and goals and ways to achieve them. It’s a long road for all of us. What I love about Pap is he is not going to sugarcoat anything. He is going to tell you how it is. That is the way he was taught.

“When I was coming up with Oakland, I had guys like Frank Thomas, Eric Chavez, guys who had been taught the right way to play baseball. It comes from a good heart. It’s not with the intention to bring anyone down. It’s positive. I like talking to Pap every day. He really wants the best for me and for all of us, a World Series championship.”

There you go — Gonzalez and Papelbon, best buds. It may be the yin and the yang that this Nationals clubhouse needs.

Thom Loverro is co-host of “The Sports Fix,” noon to 2 p.m. daily on ESPN 980 and espn980.com.


Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.

 

Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide