“We have a long ways to go and we haven’t done anything yet,” Zimmerman said. “But what we have done is kind of give this city a baseball team to cheer for.”
The Nationals thrashed the Cardinals, the defending World Series champions and a playoff contender again this year, in every way the sport allows. Gonzalez fired the first shutout of his career. Jayson Werth and Bryce Harper formed a nightmare at the top of the order. The Nationals’ defense toggled between flawless and spectacular. A check of the records shows that yes, they really did lose five straight last week.
Before the Nationals finished a two-game series in Miami, Manager Davey Johnson gathered his players for a team meeting. The Nationals have since outscored the opposition 26-5, including 18-1 against the Cardinals, who came here with the best run differential in the major leagues.
“That’s what a great manager does,” Gonzalez said. “A great manager sees a little glitch in the system, he fixes it up and gets us back going.”
Johnson likes big, round numbers. Here’s one: The Nationals have won 80 games, the same total as all of last year. And here’s another: With an even 30 games to play, the Nationals’ magic number to win the National League East is 25.
They huddled around clubhouse televisions and watched it get there together. In Atlanta, Philadelphia Phillies catcher Erik Kratz launched a game-tying homer against the Braves in the ninth inning. The room “went nuts,” reliever Ryan Mattheus said. Minutes later, John Mayberry Jr. blasted the go-ahead homer. “He got him!” one player yelled.
“It’s way more fun than anything I’ve done in the past,” Zimmerman said.
Friday’s laundry list of contributors starts with Gonzalez, who allowed five hits, walked three and struck out eight. None of the Cardinals’ starters had faced Gonzalez except Carlos Beltran, who came in 0 for 3. They had never seen his three-quarters arm angle, his late-breaking curveball or his cutting, biting fastball.
Gonzalez had always found his curveball later in starts. Friday night, he had it primed from the first inning. He spotted fastball down in the strike zone on both sides of the plate. He retired the first nine batters, the Nationals’ defense helped him with three double plays, and the Cardinals had still not touched home after eight.
“I think he’s still getting better,” said Suzuki, who caught Gonzalez for four years in Oakland. “And that says a lot because of how good he is right now.”
Gonzalez sauntered from the dugout to the mound in the ninth to a standing ovation. After leadoff batter John Jay reached on an infield single, the remaining crowd chanted, “Let’s go, Gio!” The chant felt to Gonzalez, “kind of like having a Red Bull right there in the ninth,” he said.
He whiffed Beltran flailing at an 81-mph curveball. He walked one more batter. The chants rose, every fan up. Allen Craig flied to left.
Gonzalez had one batter to go. He had thrown 114 pitches, and Johnson planned to give him no more than 120. (“He’d have to kill me first,” Gonzalez said afterward.) Mattheus warmed up in the bullpen. Shane Robinson stood at the plate.
Gonzalez’s parents sat behind home plate, and all night Gonzalez could see three faces: Suzuki, the home plate umpire and his mother, Yolanda.
“It was like, uh-oh, can’t disappoint you, Ma,” Gonzalez said. “You could hear every at-bat: ‘Swing!’ or ‘Do this!’ I was like, ‘Oh God, somebody’s got to keep her quiet over there.’ ”
Amped from the crowd, Gonzalez started Robinson with three consecutive balls, two men already on base, Mattheus heaving warmup tosses in right. Gonzalez responded with a strike. Robinson lofted the next pitch, a 94-mph fastball, Gonzalez’s 119th pitch, to center field.
“He made us nervous at the end,” Yolanda said later.
Gonzalez turned and watched. “Catch it please, Bryce,” Gonzalez thought.
The ball settled into Harper’s glove.
“That’s all I had left in the tank,” Gonzalez said.
Typically a ball of energy, Gonzalez stayed still and closed his eyes. He embraced Suzuki. Adam LaRoche smiled wide as he high-fived Gonzalez on the mound.
“After seeing him pitch the first couple times this year, I expect him to do that every night,” LaRoche said. “I really do. I think he’s that good. I think he’s capable of that. I feel like every night he has the chance to go nine shutout innings with the stuff he’s got.”
Mattheus and fellow reliever Tyler Clippard sneaked behind Gonzalez as he gave an on-field interview and dumped a bucket of orange Gatorade on him. They left the bucket on his head, and Michael Morse drew a smiley face on it with shaving cream.
“It’s an honor to get Gatorade dumped on your head,” Gonzalez said. “But not the Gatorade bucket.”
Once the bucket was removed, Edwin Jackson, Thursday’s winner, followed with a napkin full of whipped cream smeared on Gonzalez’s face.
The performance ensured the Nationals would not need many runs, but they piled them on, anyway. LaRoche sparked the onslaught with a two-run single in the first inning, and Zimmerman ended it with a two-run homer off flame-throwing right-handed reliever Jason Motte in the eighth. In between, they knocked out starter Adam Wainwright in the third inning. The Nationals crushed the Cardinals with constant pressure. They drew five walks and, of their 12 hits, nine were singles.
No one clogged the bases quite like Werth and Harper, the dynamic pairing batting first and second. Werth reached base in all five of his plate appearances. In the first two games of this four-game series, they have combined to go 9 for 16 with four walks, eight RBI and eight runs.
Afterward, Gonzalez was still drenched from the Gatorade bath. Everyone else kept the glow from the game.
“This city loves sports,” Zimmerman said. “They love winning teams just like anyone else. It’s a fun team to be a part of and I think the fans are starting to embrace us.”