Gio Gonzalez battled command, weather, layoff to keep Nationals close

(Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

It almost defies logic how Gio Gonzalez, the Nationals‘ Game 1 starter in the National League Division Series, walked seven batters over five innings but in 110 pitches only allowed one hit. His command was completely off. He struggled to find the strike zone with all of his pitches.

The chilly weather unsettled the Florida native. He hadn’t pitched in a game in nine days. Yet somehow, when he needed to, he got the outs he needed to minimize the jams he created. He allowed eight batters to reach base but only two to score.

“That’s what an ace does,” reliever Ryan Mattheus said. “He weathered the storm. He kept us in the ballgame and crooked numbers could have been up on the board at any point. But that’s what an ace does. An ace gets the big outs. It wasn’t the prettiest line in the world but we all know in this clubhouse he gave us a chance to win.”

Gonzalez came to Washington this season with a reputation for occasional wildness and, for the most part, didn’t show it. Sunday, in his first ever postseason start as his team’s best starter, he struggled. He walked seven batters, more than he had all season. The last time he did that was June 2011. Postgame, Gonzalez refused to offer the reasons at the root of his command issues, fearing he was making excuses. He insisted that the big stage didn’t make him nervous.

“It definitely was not the situation,” he said. “You look at it for what it was. I’ve had seven days off. You gotta make an adjustment. You’ve had plenty of time to rest. And that’s what I was talking about. Too much rest can be dangerous for you and not too much rest can be dangerous for you. My stuff wasn’t there. But that’s what a starting pitcher has to do, keep your team in the game and not let it blow out of proportion.”

Gonzalez was facing one of the major leagues best offenses, a right-handed dominant lineup that could pose a threat. He almost unraveled completely, however, when facing the Cardinals weakest threat: the pitcher.

In the second inning, he walked light-hitting No. 7 hitter Daniel Descalso after a tough at-bat and then No. 8 hitter Pete Kozma. Facing pitcher Adam Wainwright, he uncorked a wild fastball way inside, and the Cardinals tied the score at 1-1. He then walked Wainwright. The Cardinals took a 2-1 lead on a sacrifice fly from Jon Jay, but Gonzalez was gladly trading a run for an out. “It felt like forever,” he said. “I couldn’t get an out.”

Gonzalez then, somehow, magically, escaped the inning with by massaging a flyout from Carlos Beltran.

“This was a real test on a big stage,” Nationals Manager Davey Johnson said. “I resisted the temptation, I was about one hitter away from getting Stammen ready, and he got out of it and pitched pretty good until he got a little wild there at the end.”

Gonzalez allowed his only hit in the fourth inning, a single to David Freese. An inning later in the fifth, his wildness reappeared with consecutive walks to Jay and Beltran. But Gonzalez again buckled down, talking to himself and getting a visit from pitching coach Steve McCatty. He struck out Matt Holliday and got a popup from Allen Craig to finish his outing.

“’Let’s just go out there and keep pounding the strike zone,’” Gonzalez said he told himself. “I kept blowing in my hand, doing whatever I could to get out there and throw strikes. But that’s what my major thing about it was today, was making an adjustment “

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