- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 9, 2016

Gio Gonzalez landed at Los Angeles International Airport about 11:30 a.m. West Coast time on Sunday. As Jose Lobaton’s three-run homer drifted toward the left field fence in Nationals Park, Gonzalez waited for carousel C to start winding and deliver his bags.

The left-hander was sent ahead early to the sunshine of Los Angeles in order to prepare for all-important Game 3 of the National League Division Series between the Los Angeles Dodgers and Washington Nationals. With his fourth career postseason start Monday, the Nationals are relying on Gonzalez to put Washington back in control of the best-of-five after his teammates rallied 5-2 Sunday to square the series at 1-1.

Gonzalez’s year has been a down one on the mound. Off the field, the last six months have been a tussle between jubilation and sadness. Gonzalez’s wife, Berenice Lea Moures, gave birth to their first child, a boy, Enzo Louis, in March. Young Enzo made his way into the Nationals clubhouse early in the season, where he was introduced to several of Gonzalez’s teammates, including pal Jonathan Papelbon, after a game.

But in late September, Gonzalez’s good friend, Miami Marlins star pitcher José Fernandez, was killed in a boating accident. Gonzalez attended the memorial service for Fernandez on Sept. 28. He has not pitched since. The news that shocked the baseball world continues to catapult emotions from Gonzalez’s gut up through his throat when speaks about it. He was asked Saturday how he has been dealing with Fernandez’s death. His eyes welled as he answered.

“It was unfortunate to happen, what happened to a very close friend of mine, José Fernandez,” Gonzalez said. “It’s never easy to talk about. Still to this day, I have a tough time speaking about it. He knows, how important he was to me and my family. But as far as that, this is my job. I need to focus on trying to help out the Washington Nationals. That’s basically it. But José knows that he’s dear to my heart, and so do the friends and family of his.”

Any member of a postseason rotation is crucial. In Gonzalez’s case, he might be paramount in the series. He is the lone lefty among the Nationals starters in a series where the opponent cannot hit left-handed pitching.

Stack up the dreary Dodgers numbers from the regular season against southpaws: a .214 team batting average against left-handed pitching put Los Angeles last in the major leagues by 20 points. Its on-base percent of .291 was last. Slugging percentage? Last by 30 points. On-base percentage plus slugging percentage? Yes. Last. By 44 points.

That massive sample of scuffling is almost enough to undo Gonzalez’s personal potholes from the season. His 4.57 ERA was his highest since he was a 23-year-old in Oakland in 2009. Each year since he arrived in Washington in 2009, Gonzalez’s ERA has gone up.

The culprit this season, as it has been with increased frequency year by year, is Gonzalez’s inability to quell budding rallies. With runners on base, teams hit .292 against him. That’s 52 points higher than when the bases are empty. Runner in scoring position lead hitters to a .913 OPS against Gonzalez. Former Nationals manager Matt Williams grappled with how to resolve this issue for the emotional Gonzalez last season. Dusty Baker has watched it this season. Gonzalez’s competitive spirit can lead to public self-chastising on the mound. When he has success, he prefers to praise his teammates. That is a noble sentiment. Combining those elements also makes it difficult for a person to pitch with proper conviction.

When he met with the media after Saturday’s rainout, Gonzalez did not want to recount his thoughts about the regular season.

“The season’s over with,” Gonzalez said. “It’s not — it’s not something I want to sit back and reflect [on]. I want to talk about now, which is October … It’s playoff time. So this is the time you need to turn it on and get ready to go.”

His most recent playoff start, in 2014, was effective and brief. Gonzalez pitched four innings against the San Francisco Giants in the NLDS and allowed no earned runs. The Nationals later lost that game late, ending their season. In 2012, Gonzalez made two starts. He didn’t make it beyond five innings in either. His career postseason ERA is 3.21, though he has not lasted long in any of his appearances.

“I do want to go deep in the game actually,” Gonzalez said. “I really want to expand [to the] fifth, sixth innings, try to give the team a great chance to get deep in our bullpen, especially with the back end of our bullpen. We have some strong arms; try to get to Shawn Kelley or [closer Mark] Melancon. It would be great to get to those guys. It’s a good sign if you did that. You see those guys come out, you know you did something well in this game.”

The Nationals saw Melancon on Sunday. As Gonzalez suggested, it was a good sign. Melancon’s first career postseason save finished a game in which the bullpen did the heft of the work. Monday, Gonzalez is desperate to take care of most of it himself.

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