Overlooked in Saturday’s dramatic comeback win was the continuation of Gio Gonzalez’s inconsistent season. He allowed three runs on seven hits over five innings. He walked two and struck out seven. He needed 102 pitches just to get 15 outs, an inefficient rate that has plagued his season.
Gonzalez chalked it up to tough breaks — “I got the groundballs I wanted, they just found the hole” — but it was more than just that. His night was foretold by a laborious first inning. He gave up two two-out singles to Russell Martin and Starling Marte. He escaped the inning unscathed by getting Gaby Sanchez to line a ball to right field. But by then, Gonzalez’s pitch count was at 27 and the Pirates had fouled off 10 of those pitches.
Gonzalez’s downfall was the third inning. He struck out pitcher Jeff Locke and then gave up a single to Josh Harrison. Gregory Polanco hit into a fielder’s choice for the second out. The inning changed when Gonzalez walked Martin on six pitches, including one ball that appeared on replay to be inside the strike zone.
Martin’s walk put two men on base for Marte. Gonzalez fired a waist-high first-pitch fastball that Marte dumped into left field for an RBI double. Another high fastball to Sanchez yielded a two-run single that gave the Pirates a 3-0 lead. Gonzalez gave the Nationals two more innings, pitching out of a two-on, two-out jam in the fifth but left the Nationals in a three-run hole. (Gonzalez has also received some of the worst run support in the majors.)
“That’s just how my luck’s been going,” Gonzalez said of his pitching. “They’re fouling off 94, letter-high. It’s just one of those things where you’ve got to bounce back and hit the bottom of the strike zone. When you make that adjustment, they put it in play.”
But, really, the issues was command, Manager Matt Williams said, especially with his curveball.
“He’ll continue to work on it,” Williams said. “Next time out, hopefully he’s got that. But his next ‘pen will be really important for him to establish that slot and command with the curveball. If he doesn’t have it, the other team can just eliminate it from their thought process. It makes it more difficult for him to get guys out. He’ll work on it hard next time he throws a ‘pen.”
Gonzalez’s curveball has been perhaps his best pitch since he has been in the majors. In 2012, his curveball was worth 10.2 runs better than average, and 7.7 runs last season, according to FanGraphs.com. So far this year, it is only worth 1.2 runs more than average.
“It’s just trying to find a feel for it,” he said. “And so far, it’s just I’ve got to keep working at it. Maybe something will click. It’s just one of those pitches that it’s almost like the changeup, where you’ve got to get that touch and feel in the back of your head, just ‘Oh, there it is. That’s what you wanted.’ But so far, it lands for a strike and then it just has no clue where it’s going. But that’s the beauty thing: keep them off-balance some way. Fool them somehow. But other than that, just got to keep pounding the strike zone, keep attacking.”
Gonzalez has toggled between good and inefficient since he returned from the disabled list on June 18 with a shoulder injury. He has a decent 3.61 ERA since then and he carried a 22-inning scoreless streak into July. But ever since that streak was stopped, his outings have trended down. He has a 5.20 ERA over the past seven starts.
Gonzalez left when Saturday’s game when Scott Hairston came in to pinch hit, marking the fourth time in six starts Gonzalez did not pitch more than five innings and the eighth time this season. During his stellar 2012 season, that happened only six times, and only seven times in 2013. His average of 5.7 innings per outing this season is the lowest mTTark of his Nationals tenure and lowest since 2009, his second year in the majors.
Gonzalez’s shoulder hasn’t remained as a lingering issue, Williams said. It is simply problems with consistency and command.
“It’s just a question of command and the curveball’s important for him,” he said. “He’ll address it with [Steve McCatty] again and look for that arm slot, and hopefully next time out, he finds it early. We’ve seen that in his good outings, that he’s had that.”