Gio Gonzalez sees progress; Nationals want to see more curveballs

Gio Gonzalez has not earned a win since July 5, which is of course an unfair assessment of his performance. In one of those nine winless starts, he allowed no runs in seven innings. In another, he allowed one run in seven innings. But he has fallen far short of the high standard he has set for himself. Over those nine starts, Gonzalez submitted four quality starts and punched up a 4.38 ERA.

Tuesday night brought improvement. Gonzalez allowed the Phillies three runs on six hits and a walk in six innings. The damage came down to two pitches, one of which he could only shrug at. He yielded a two-run homer to Freddy Galvis on a neck-high, 94-mph fastball in the fourth, a pitch Galvis yanked over the left field fence. Darin Ruf crushed a fastball down the chute over the fence in the fifth.

“It’s progress,” Gonzalez said. “I knew it was going to be a tough game from the beginning, Cole Hamels has been pitching great. I was going to try to match him up as much as possible. But other than, fastball was still live, curveball, changeup. You leave a ball up, they’re going to hit it.”

For Gonzalez to recapture his best form, the Nationals believe he needs to throw more curveballs. Gonzalez struggled with the feel for the pitch earlier this season and relied more on his fastball and change-up. He can compete with them, but for him to dominate like he did for so much of 2012 and 2013, he needs his trademark curve.

“He’s got to use it to get it going, because that’s why he’s here,” pitching coach Steve McCatty said before Tuesday’s game. “He’s got a great fastball. His change-up has gotten better. But that curveball is one of the best in the big leagues. You got to use it. The threat of it being there helps his fastball.”

In the past month, McCatty has been imploring Gonzalez to use the curveball more often. Tuesday  In his first two seasons in Washington, 20 percent of Gonzalez’s pitches were curveballs. Entering Tuesday night, Gonzalez had thrown his curveball 17.8 percent of his pitches. In four of his past five starts, Gonzalez had used his curveball in less than 11 percent of his pitches.

Gonzalez did not throw a ton of curveballs in his previous start, but he regained the snap and bite of the pitch. Tuesday night, Gonzalez twirled a dozen curves in 87 pitches, or 13.8 percent.

“He can’t throw it once every 15 pitches and hope it’s a good one,” McCatty said. “You got to use it. He got some confidence in it the other day. He didn’t over-throw it. He wasn’t spiking it. You have to use it more to get a feel for it. When you don’t throw it that much, you don’t have a feel for it. I don’t care how good your curveball is. You got to use it in order for it to be effective.”

Gonzalez said his curveball “is starting to snap a little more. I got to start learning how to stop throwing them for a strike when you get ahead of the hitter and start putting it down more lower in the strike zone. Other than that, it’s definitely a pitch that’s actually worked and is starting to shape up.”

Gonzalez added that throwing more curves can sometimes help his other pitches.

“It helps me stay back, helps me stay closed,” Gonzalez said. “Things the curve and the change-up help me do. At the end of the day, you leave a pitch up, it’s going to get hit.”

Gonzalez made one play away from the mound Tuesday that irked Manager Matt Williams. Afterward, Williams mentioned the Nationals needed better execution. When asked how, he pointed to Gonzalez’s at-bat in the third. Kevin Frandsen had singled and taken second on a wild pitch with no outs and two strikes.

Williams called for Gonzalez to try to bunt Frandsen to third. Gonzalez swung away and whiffed on an outside fastball.

“We’ve got a guy at second base and nobody out, we give him the bunt sign and he swung away,” Williams said. “We need to make sure that we” get that bunt down.

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