Late Thursday night, as the Nationals celebrated another win, Michael Gonzalez plopped down at a table with three video monitors. Gonzalez had closed out the victory in the ninth, but he did not sit to watch video of himself. He sat next to Henry Rodriguez so he could watch him.
As Rodriguez reviewed his performance, which included hitting Rickie Weeks with a curveball and giving up a 430-foot home run to Carlos Gomez, Gonzalez talked Rodriguez through the outing, a mix of encouragement and constructive criticism.
The Nationals have one of the best bullpens in the major leagues, a loose, cohesive group comprised mostly of 20-somethings with no pennant-race experience. Seven of them fit that description. And then there is Gonzalez, the 34-year-old left-hander who pitched in seven postseason games last year, including three in the World Series.
While giving Manager Davey Johnson a solid left-handed option, Gonzalez has filled the role the Nationals envisioned for Brad Lidge – an experienced, sage reliever to look after the talented, rambunctious kids.
“I was just talking to some guys the other day about that,” closer Tyler Clippard said. “He’s a leader. He brings that mentality. He’s been through it. He’s kind of been in all the roles you can be as a reliever – lefty guy, a closer. It’s a good thing to have.
“It’s funny – we kind of had that with Brad early on in the year. Myself and other guys would go to him and ask him questions and things he’s done and certain situations. Gonzo came in and has filled that role to a T. That’s kind of the full spectrum of the type of team we have this year. We’ve had injuries and guys coming and going. And everyone seems to fill the role.”
The Nationals signed Gonzalez to a minor league contract in mid-May and promoted to the majors June 3. He joined a group of relievers that had been together for several seasons. One year, they shined each other’s shoes on Sundays. Another, they wore fedoras on the final day of road trips.
“That’s a whole new breed out in the bullpen,” Johnson said. “They’re a crazy bunch. I have a lot riverboat gamblers out there. They’ll throw you a 3-2 breaking ball. I like their mental approach. They kind of take the way they live and take it out there.”
Gonzalez knew Sean Burnett and Tom Gorzelanny from their days together on the Pirates’ pitching staff, and they helped him fit immediately into the bullpen. He shared his insights not as a concerted effort, but “just being who I am,” Gonzalez said.
“This is my fifth team,” Gonzalez said. “I understand now that it’s a family. You can’t pick your family sometimes, but they’re your family. When you’re talking about different types of experiences that you’ve got, that’s where it helps. Everything else comes to asking questions, thinking about different situations. Just looking back, I’ve been there, done it.”
Shortly after Gonzalez arrived, Ross Detwiler credited Gonzalez with convincing him to be more aggressive and attack hitters with his fastball. When Gonzalez first joined the Nationals’ bullpen, Craig Stammen had moved from long relief role to setting up more with Ryan Mattheus on the disabled list. Gonzalez helped Stammen learn how to prepare for more frequent appearances – throw fewer pitches to warm-up.
“At the beginning of the year, we had Brad Lidge,” Stammen said. “He was kind of that father figure, I guess you could say. Gonzo’s kind of taken that role. He does a really good job of explaining things, constructive criticism.”
Gonzalez’s performance should not be discounted, either. He has appeared in 24 games and is typically the first left-handed Johnson goes to before the eighth inning. He has a 2.45 ERA in 18 1/3 innings, striking out 21 with nine walks. But because he never went through spring training this year, he feels he has room to improve.
“I still feel like I’m not where I want to be yet,” Gonzalez said. “I’m happy with the way things are going. Everything feels good. But I’m getting close.”
Even Gonzalez hasn’t felt in midseason form, some of his best contributions have come off the mound.