VIERA, Fla. — Gio Gonzalez’s delivery and mound presence were altered subtly on Sunday afternoon in the Nationals’ split squad 7-2 win over the Braves. At times, he paused briefly at the height of his windup. When the Braves had players on base and a ball fell in for a hit, Gonzalez looked more composed than before. The emotional left-handed starter did his best to stay in control.
Gonzalez admits he still has a ways to go, but he is trying to improve his concentration and heart rate. According to Gonzalez, the Nationals’ new director of mental conditioning, Mark Campbell, is working to get him back to having fun and building his confidence. He gave Gonzalez a new breathing technique to try.
“He’s got a little catchphrase that’s pretty cool: ‘Feed the family,’ ” said Gonzalez, whose fiancee recently gave birth to their first child. “It worked today. Just constantly slowing the game down, get back in the situation today and get back to that little thing and feel great.”
Nationals Manager Dusty Baker said: “The first thing about trying to solve something is you have to identify the problem. So evidently he knows, or somebody told him, that breathing and calmness is the key. Once you know the problem, the next step is deal with the solution. I’m proud of him for dealing with the solution.”
Pitching coach Mike Maddux is also trying to get Gonzalez to improve his pitching mechanics and approach. Before, Gonzalez would simply look at the catcher for a sign and throw. Now, Maddux is telling Gonzalez to slow down to allow his arm to catch up to his body, which would allow him to better control the ball and keep it low in the strike zone.
“You’re going to be faster than your lower half,” Gonzalez said. “That’s what we’ve been working on. Trying to pick up my target and trying to stay on target and trying to stay closed while picking up your target. I’m excited. I feel comfortable doing what we’re doing.”
Gonzalez tossed six innings, allowing seven hits and two runs while striking out four on 94 pitches. He only threw 60 strikes but Gonzalez was most proud that he walked none and his curveball was sharp.
“I know I was behind on a couple guys but was happy I still pounded the strike zone and I went in and attacked the hitters,” said Gonzalez, who doubled in his first at-bat of the spring and nearly added a single later.
Maddux has also challenged Gonzalez to improve his focus in bullpen sessions. Baker said Maddux has used exercises for Gonzalez in which he tries to throw as many good pitches as he can in a row in a certain location.
“It starts in practice,” Baker said. “Don’t think you can turn it all on when you get on the mound. I saw Mike’s brother [Greg Maddux] … He had a bullpen where he was throwing 50 miles an hour but he had the same delivery, same look and he was throwing everything low and outside. Then he’d get up to 50 percent, 80 percent, and then once he got that low and away zone and release point, then he’d move inside and outside. That just shows perfect practice makes perfect results in the game.”
>>> Ryan Zimmerman went 3 for 4 and is hitting .314 this spring, while Daniel Murphy added two hits and is hitting .262. Ben Revere (.389) and Jayson Werth (.273) also collected two hits each.
>>> Pitching in back-to-back games for the first time this spring, Sean Burnett pitched out of a two-on, one-out jam. The hits were either softly hit or just out of reach of a fielder. Burnett still wriggled out of it with a strikeout and groundout.
Burnett, on a minor league deal, continues to make a strong case to make the team. The Nationals wanted him to pitch back-to-back games to test his much-injured left arm. He has made eight scoreless appearances this spring.
“He looked pretty good,” Baker said. “[Matt] Belisle looked good, too. Everybody out there looked good, real good. That was the best I’ve seen [Jonathan Papelbon]. He was sharp. His velocity was right there. I tell you, the guys are playing some ball.”
The Nationals are 17-4-3 this spring.
>>> Baker is fun to talk to. Add this Baker-ism to the list: “Speed that can’t hit ain’t speed.” And this, after the game when asked if he thought the Nationals had a chance at a triple play in the fourth inning but turned into a double play only:
“I thought so. I was calling: ‘Triple play! Triple play!’ But he was a little too far off the bag. You take the outs you can get. To tell you the truth, I’ve never seen a triple play. Not in person. Cause I was on one team and went to use the bathroom real quick. I went in to use the bathroom and everybody’s running off the field! ‘What happened?’ ‘Triple play!’ I’m going to hopefully have that happen for us this year.”
>>> In the other split squad game, the Nationals tied the Mets, 4-4. Yusmeiro Petit allowed four runs over 4 1/3 innings. The bullpen — led by Rafael Martin (1.69 ERA), Oliver Perez (0.00 ERA), Shawn Kelley (4.26 ERA) and minor leaguers Bryan Harper (his first big league spring inning) and Ryan Brinley — combined to allow only three hits and no runs.
Clint Robinson smashed his fourth spring home run, hitting out a two-strike curveball from Steven Matz. Michael A. Taylor made a stellar catch in center field.
>>> The Nationals traded Tyler Moore, who was outrighted Friday to Class AAA Syracuse, to the Braves for minor league first baseman/outfielder Nate Freiman. The 29-year-old was born in D.C. and went to Duke. At 6-foot-8, he is one of the tallest position players in major league history. He has some brief major league experience with the Athletics. The right-handed batter, who has a better track record against left-handed pitching, hit .220 with four home runs at Class AAA Nashville last season. Moore was due to make $900,000 this season.