NEW YORK – Gio Gonzalez stood on the Citi Field mound and stared over the first base line. “That’s foul!” he cried, lifting his left arm in protest, as if that might change what happened — the chalk flying up, a New York Mets’ call-up named Zach Lutz bumping fists with the first base coach, a ‘1’ replacing the ‘0’ in the Mets’ hit column. The Washington Nationals have not thrown a no-hitter since they came into existence, and Gonzalez had come within perhaps one inch from becoming the first.
Gonzalez was nine outs from history when Lutz reached for the only Mets hit in a Nationals’ 9-0 demolition at Citi Field. In his first complete game and his second start in which he’s allowed just one hit this season, Gonzalez faced 30 hitters and retired 27, nine of them with strikeouts. His complete game was a domination of the Mets in every way, and afterward teammates lined up to shake his hand. If one ball had landed a one inch further to the right, they would have piled on top of him.
“It’s a bittersweet moment,” Gonzalez said. “You’re happy you got the win. The team did great. Everybody looked alive today. It’s a sad moment when you lose a no-hitter down the line.”
The Nationals celebrated their 20th win in their past 29 games, which lifted them to a season-high five games above .500. They marveled at Gonzalez, who may have pitched the best game of a sterling career. “Brilliant,” Manager Davey Johnson said. But they also winced at how close he had come.
As Gonzalez held court for a semicircle of reporters, first baseman Adam LaRoche sidled next to Gonzalez. In the seventh, Lutz’s hit had barely eluded him. LaRoche put his arm around Gonzalez and said “I’m sorry.”
“You’re all right,” Gonzalez said, patting LaRoche on the stomach. “I love this guy.”
A few seconds later, LaRoche lamented the thin margin between a one-hitter and a moment that lasts forever.
“It sucks,” LaRoche said. “I hate it for him. It kind of ruins a great offensive game, a great pitched game.”
Gonzalez never had to worry about the outcome. Denard Span and Ryan Zimmerman led off the game with back-to-back homers, which was only a start. The Nationals bashed five homers total, which produced all nine of their runs in the first five innings. Tyler Moore smashed a solo homer, and Jayson Werth and Wilson Ramos each added three-run blows.
Gonzalez walked the second hitter he faced, Mets second baseman Daniel Murphy, and then sent the next 17 batters he faced walking back to the dugout shaking their heads. Around the fifth inning, the Nationals behind Gonzalez sensed he could make a run.
“We see the scoreboard every inning,” Zimmerman said. “We know what’s going on. Everyone wants to be a part of history.”
The zero in the Mets’ hit column remained as he walked to the mound in the seventh inning, and Mets Manager Terry Collins summoned Lutz, a right-handed rookie with three hits in 20 major league at-bats, to pinch hit in what had become the pitcher’s spot.
In the nine years since the Nationals moved to Washington, only twice had one of their pitchers flirted with the possibility of a no-hitter. Ramon Oritz took a no-hitter into the ninth inning on Labor Day in 2006. In 2010, Scott Olsen carried one into the eighth. Those were flukes, pitchers who caught the right breaks on the right day.
Gonzalez operates with a boomerang curveball and a jitterbug fastball. The league hit .206 against him last year. The prospect of him carrying a no-hitter deep into a game is more than theoretical every fifth day. Against a Mets lineup that included a 3-4-5 of Andrew Brown, Lucas Duda and Justin Turner, as Gonzalez controlled his curve, fastball and change-up, it became vividly real.
“When I see Gio when he first came to this team, I saw him all the time being aggressive,” said Ramos, his catcher. “Today, I remembered when he came here for the first time. I was impressed to see him back.”
Gonzalez overwhelmed the Mets all night, striking out seven in the first six innings. But he also received the requisite luck. The third inning ended when Eric Young smashed a line drive straight at Zimmerman at third base. With one out in the fifth, Juan Lagares laced Gonzalez’s 3-1 fastball to the left side of the infield. Lunging to his right, reaching over his head, shortstop Ian Desmond stabbed the ball and turned a single into another out.
Now, nine outs away, Gonzalez stared in at Lutz. Gonzalez rifled a first-pitch fastball that sailed at 91 miles per hour off the plate’s outside edge. Lutz reached out his bat and poked a soft liner down the first base line. LaRoche flopped to the ground, his mitt extended. The ball scooted past him and left a mark in the chalk. First base umpire John Hirschbeck pointed to his right — fair ball.
“I hit it off the end of the bat a little bit, and it landed right on the line,” Lutz said. “Just some good luck right there.”
LaRoche hopped to his feet and started to argue. Hirschbeck showed him the mark the ball had left in the chalk. When his argument didn’t work, LaRoche asked Hirschbeck, “Didn’t you hear me call time?”
Ramos turned to home plate Bob Davidson and said, “It was foul!” Davidson told him the ball hit the line.
“It’s just makes me sick,” LaRoche said. “And then after that, you know he’s going to shut them down.”
Gonzalez polished off his shutout, a walk to Lutz with two outs in the ninth serving as a small, final blemish. As the final out landed in left fielder Corey Brown’s glove, Gonzalez circled the mound.
Gonzalez looked at the ground and screamed, clutching both fists. After a moment’s frustration, he pulled his head up, smacked his glove, smiled and tried to reconcile how such a great night could leave him feeling so empty.
“It’s such a bad feeling when you know it’s like you’re battling all the way to the end,” Gonzalez said. “These guys are making great plays and playing their hearts out for you. You just turn the page. It wasn’t your night.”