He had just handed his father, Max, one of the baseballs he used to earn the 20th win of his landmark first season in Washington, a 10-4 demolition of the Milwaukee Brewers. He allowed three hits and no earned runs in seven innings as three homers by his teammates paced him. Gonzalez has played in two all-star games, but to him his 20th win, the thing he had worked all those mornings for, surpassed anything he had done.
“This is like a dream,” Gonzalez said. “I feel like I’m still sleeping in it.”
In the dead of winter, when the Nationals traded for him, a day like Saturday afternoon would have seemed too much to ask: his family in the stands, sun-splashed Nationals Park packed to the brim, a contending opponent made helpless as the Nationals pushed nearer to a division title. It would have seemed too much like a dream.
The Nationals, too, could not have envisioned such a moment. General Manager Mike Rizzo shipped four prospects to the Oakland Athletics for a 27-year-old with nasty stuff and a goofy streak. He has become their ace, a leading Cy Young award candidate, a cherished clubhouse cutup. He leads the majors in wins and moved into a tie for fourth in the National League with a 2.84 ERA. His five strikeouts Saturday brought his season total to 201, making him the first Washington hurler to surpass 200 since Walter Johnson 96 years ago.
“If he was anything like this in Oakland, it’s surprising they got rid of him,” first baseman Adam LaRoche said. “Because this guy is electric.
“This is a big family to him. He cares about everybody. Fun-loving guy. Bulldog on the mound. Just tough not to root for him.”
After Gonzalez warmed up in the bullpen Saturday afternoon, he and pitching coach Steve McCatty walked to the Nationals’ dugout. Manager Davey Johnson asked McCatty: “How’s he feeling? How many do we need to score?”
“He had an awful ’pen,” McCatty said replied. “So that means we probably need one.”
McCatty’s instinct proved accurate. Gonzalez struck out the first batter he faced, Norichika Aoki, flailing at a boomerang curveball. His fastball zipped at 96 mph, “just easy, effortless fuel coming out of his hand,” LaRoche said. The only runs he allowed came after a deep flyball that deflected off Bryce Harper’s glove, a tough play ruled an error.
The outcome was never in question after the third inning. The Nationals had 13 hits, including three-run homers from Ryan Zimmerman and Ian Desmond in the fourth inning off old friend Livan Hernandez, now a Brewers mop-up reliever, in a span of four batters. LaRoche smashed his 32nd homer off Tyler Thornburg, matching his career high. The Nationals led, 9-0, after four innings, and Gonzalez was cruising to his milestone.