Gio Gonzalez happily gets back to baseball in first spring start

February 25, 2013

(Jonathan Netwon / The Washington Post)

The last month for Gio Gonzalez was, for him, too seldom about baseball. It was about denials and uncomfortable statements, about his name surfacing next to words he never imagined, about a drug test that has since come back clean. Tonight, after a spring spent defending himself in the wake of a report that tied him to a clinic that distributed banned performance enhancing drugs, Gonzalez went back to work.

As he took the mound against the Mets at Tradition Field, Gonzalez wondered how the crowd would react in the wake of the report that his name appeared on documents at the Biogenesis clinic in South Florida. Gonzalez, he said, heard nothing but well-wishes, fans telling him how much they enjoyed to watch him pitch. He appreciated the cheers, and the chance to put baseball back at the center of things.

“It’s good to get on that mound again and get back at it,” Gonzalez said. “Especially with the fan support I was getting out there, it’s good to hear that fans still support and still love you. It was a little butterflies. You get the butterflies again, which is a good thing. When you get that feeling, it means baseball hasn’t left your emotions.”

Facing a Mets lineup anchored by David Wright and Ike Davis, Gonzalez gave a strong first performance of spring. He struck out three in two scoreless, hitless innings, throwing 20 strikes in 34 pitches. He took an inning to find command of his fastball but unleashed vicious and precise curveballs from the start.

“I felt good,” Gonzalez said. “I was having fun out there.”

Gonzalez is scheduled to make two more starts before he leaves for Miami, where he will join Team USA in the second round of the World Baseball Classic. He said he approached his first start the same as he would any other year, without any additional urgency. His stuff was sharp, though, with his fastball zipping consistently between 92 and 94 mph.

In the first inning, Gonzalez had trouble finding his arm slot and picking up catcher Chris Snyder’s target. Six of his first eight pitches, all of them fastballs, were balls. But his curveball, his best pitch, materialized right away. He buckled Wright with a backdoor hook, and he struck out Davis flailing at another. The outing, so soon in the season, reiterated Gonzalez’s fundamental quality as a pitcher: His curveball is a gift.

“I’ve always felt confident with my curveball,” Gonzalez said. “That’s always been my plus pitch that I’ve gone to. It was fun to go out there and snap and work on  it. When you’re getting the results right off the bat, early, it’s pretty exciting to see that.”

After the first inning, pitching coach Steve McCatty pointed out the mechanical adjustment Gonzalez needed to make. He kept missing outside to the left of the plate, which meant he was opening his front shoulder too early. He needed to stay more compact and slow down his delivery.

In the second inning, he did. Gonzalez threw seven strikes in 11 pitches, whiffing outfielder Jamie Hoffman and catcher John Buck.

“Just like a hitter, you want to stay compact and not fly open,” Gonzalez said. “That’s  the same thing as a pitcher. That’s what ‘Cat brings to the table for me. It was fun to see him and joke around with him. But when it comes down to getting serious across those lines, it’s the adjustment. I always ask him: ‘What did you see?’ ”

Gonzalez has not changed his vibrant personality while dealing with the aftermath of the Biogenesis report, which includes a still-ongoing investigation by MLB. He was smiling in the clubhouse after his start. He told reporters he had gotten a cut on his forehead from playing with Hollywood, his French bulldog.

“I hate her, and then I look at her in the face and I love her again,” Gonzalez said.

Adam Kilgore covers the Nationals for The Washington Post.
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