- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 26, 2016

Feet up but already antsy in his preferred sleeveless T-shirt, Jonathan Papelbon shouted a command.

“Wally! Call Gio’s fat [butt] and tell him to get in here.”

Washington Nationals clubhouse manager Mike Wallace smiled as he dialed. Many of Papelbon’s teammates were milling about in the haze of an early spring training morning. Gonzalez had not yet arrived. Papelbon couldn’t wait for his physical presence to start the jabs.

“Pap says to get your [butt] in here,” Wallace said into the phone.

Lifting his chin, he turned to Papelbon.

“He’s on his way.”

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February in Viera, Florida, was the start of an unforeseen relationship between Gonzalez and Papelbon. Their lockers ended up next to each other. In between was a slab of wall Papelbon would later use to post a picture of the Disney character Aladdin in mock tribute to Gonzalez. Gonzalez’s long locks were and remain a target of Papelbon’s trumped-up ire.

But, it was before the two sat next to each other in Viera, prior to their lockers being moved side-by-side at Nationals Park, and well before Gonzalez was six weeks into a pitching revival, that Papelbon began to tinker with the idea of pairing with Gonzalez. During the tumultuous end of last season, Papelbon had plenty of time to think. Among his winter considerations was Gonzalez.

“From last year, I knew how important he could be to the team,” Papelbon said. “I saw that and I kind of thought about it this offseason. I just felt like we could both make each other better on a day-to-day basis. I approached him about throwing every day. Working every day together.

“I just felt like he was a real integral part of our team, more than what I think many reporters or anyone else thought. Obviously, it’s showing this year how important he really is to our team. You have [Stephen Strasburg], you have [Max] Scherzer, they’re the front end of our rotation. I think the back end of our rotation is just as important. I personally think he could be a No. 1 in any other organization that doesn’t have Scherzer and Strasburg at the top. That’s really kind of my approach and what I thought about him.”

They bounced through spring training in the same work groups. Gonzalez spent time with new pitching coach Mike Maddux, who emphasized to him the importance of picking up the catcher’s mitt early, and staying focused on it through the windup. It’s helped lead to his first-pitch strike percentage being the highest of his career.

Papelbon was born in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, before moving to Florida then playing college baseball at Mississippi State. In Starkville, Papelbon began the dual pursuits of being focused and light-hearted.

“He would goof around at times and I went, man, is this real?” said then-Bulldogs pitching coach Daron Schoenrock. “What I started seeing was one, he kept things very light at practice but when it came time for his individual work, he was able to flip that switch and get really, really locked in.”

Major League Baseball wasn’t sure about Gonzalez’s switch. He put together two All-Star seasons, including his first year in Washington. Though once trouble came, he would often have a hard time winding his way out of it. The idea that Gonzalez could not clean up his own mess peaked last season with then-manager Matt Williams. When an erratic Gonzalez put runners on base, Williams was ready to trudge to the mound.

Gonzalez has been better at the most crucial times this season. In high- and medium-leverage situations last season, Gonzalez allowed a .259 and .288 batting average against, respectively. This season, those numbers are down to .250 and .215.

“Pap had an easier way to turn it on to seriousness than I think Gio did,” Nationals manager Dusty Baker said. “Gio’s learned how to really focus this year compared to what I heard in the past.”

Papelbon thought the playful side of Gonzalez was an entry point for their friendship. He has been relentless about Gonzalez’s hair — which once was short, it should be pointed out. First, was the Aladdin reference and visual. Back home in Washington, “Cut it” by O.T. Genasis played in the clubhouse. The chorus hangs on one main phrase, “You need to cut it.” Papelbon sang along in Gonzalez’s direction.

“There’s certain ways you got treat and go about [it] with different people,” Papelbon said. “Gio is one of those people who likes to have fun and enjoys his job and likes to be out here. Doesn’t take everything too serious. I think in this game, if you take everything serious, you put too much stress on yourself. That’s one of the things I’ve tried to get with him — like you don’t have to take everything so serious.

“There are things that you do need to take serious and work hard at, but have a light heart, have fun with it too. I think he’s having fun this year. I think he’s having fun this year more than he has any other year, personally. I don’t know that. But, I know from last year to this year, he’s having a lot more fun.”

A look at the math is more enjoyable. Gonzalez’s ERA is 2.87, 16th in the National League. His walks per nine innings have dropped significantly, from 3.5 last season to a career-low 2.2, besting Max Scherzer’s 2.4 thus far this season. The percentage of Gonzalez’s pitches inside the strike zone has increased by 5.5 percent. His left-on-base percentage has increased by almost six percent.

“I just felt like he needed someone to explain to him and show him how important he was to this ballclub and someone that was willing and able to put the work in every day with him,” Papelbon said. “I also think having Maddux here has been real important and a big help for him as well.”

After each start, Gonzalez is asked where the improvements are rooted. He rattles off a long list of thanks, always starting with the catcher and leaving himself off. At this point, Papelbon can be sitting nearby sipping a beer from a can. Perhaps he’s envisioning Gonzalez’s hair “lined up,” as Papelbon puts it — the dangling black locks left on a floor — the next time they go fishing. Or hoping that when they talk about fatherhood, he’ll be looking at a short-haired Gonzalez.

When Gonzalez’s newborn, Enzo, was set to make a rare clubhouse visit earlier this season, Papelbon tried to shoo away reporters postgame so Gonzalez could step out of the clubhouse to nab his son. When Gonzalez held him later, Papelbon, who has two children, ages 7 and 6, looked down. All his inner fury, the Ric Flair entrance, was undone by a baby’s gleam.

“I think I finally got the chance to meet the real Papelbon,” Gonzalez said. “The guy who actually genuinely wants the best for you and understands the game. He’s an old-school player. He’s been around. The guy’s won a World Series. He has a track record from here to Africa. He’s unbelievable as far as that. He’s electric in this clubhouse. He’s a player favorite in here. What he brings to our table — we need him. We need him in the bullpen. We need a strong Jonathan Papelbon.”

Turns out, Papelbon thought the same of Gonzalez.



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