WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. – One of the first things Gio Gonzalez did when he reported for spring training at The Ballpark of the Palm Beaches last month was walk into Dusty Baker’s new office with a declaration. His top objective for the 2017 season, Gonzalez told the Washington Nationals manager, was to make the all-star game.
Of course, athletes usually aspire for the summit and welcome the accolades that accompany excellence. All-star games are among them. But Gonzalez didn’t go to Baker’s office to inform him he wanted to make the all-star team last year. This year is different. This year, the game will be at Marlins Park in Miami, Gonzalez’s home town.
“There’s a lot of reasons why I want to make it but most of them I want to keep to myself and to my family,” Gonzalez said. “But this is a big, big, big year. This year means something to me. It’s a little more personal this year.”
It’s a lofty goal for a pitcher whose ERA has escalated each of the last four years — up to 4.57 in 2016, which ranked 17th from the bottom among qualified starting pitchers across baseball. But, as Baker pointed out Friday, Gonzalez has been an all-star before. He was an all-star in 2011 with the Oakland Athletics and in 2012 with the Nationals, when Gonzalez emerged as Washington’s ace. That year he won 21 games, posted a 2.89 ERA, started Game 1 of the National League Division Series and finished third in the Cy Young award voting.
“If you can win 21, you can win 22,” Baker opined.
But that was five years ago. Gonzalez is now a 31-year-old veteran exiting his prime at the back end of one of the best rotations in baseball. The Nationals are not counting on 200 all-star level innings from him. They’re paying him $12 million to continue taking the ball every fifth day — as he has done consistently in every one of big league seasons — and deliver more-efficient outings.
Gonzalez has been on the disabled list just once since the Nationals acquired him for four prospects, including current teammates Derek Norris and Blake Treinen, in December 2011. He’s thrown at least 175 innings and made 31 starts in four of his five seasons in Washington, durability he credits to advice given to him from former Nationals all-star Livan Hernandez, who advised Gonzalez to start his offseason program earlier a few years ago.
“It’s a long season,” Gonzalez said. “I learned from experience. It’s what your body tells you. I feel like my body tells me ‘Hey, listen, you worked hard. Take a little break.’ ”
Gonzalez made his third start of the spring Friday. And unlike his crisp and efficient second outing – in which he pitched an extra inning to get his work in – Gonzalez had to grind after a brisk, 14-pitch first inning Friday. He surrendered four hits and walked one, but kept the damage to one run — the only one he’s allowed in seven innings this spring — while striking out four. He threw 51 pitches, 32 for strikes, in the Nationals’ 7-1 loss. A defeat that included Bryce Harper’s fourth home run of the spring.
“He was in trouble that one inning, but he minimized the damage and that’s the secret,” Baker said. “If you can master damage control, then you’ll be around and win games.”
A failure to develop that skill became problematic last season after Gonzalez posted a 1.86 ERA through his first eight starts. His inability to finish off batters regularly surfaced to balloon his pitch counts and chase him from games. As a result, he pitched into the seventh inning in just five of his final 24 outings after doing it three times in his first eight.
“Last year, a lot of times he would get 0-2 and then end up 3-2 and then end up walking a guy or something and you add two or three pitches per batter,” Baker said. “That adds up quickly and then it gets up there high in a short period. … And I told him a number of times, ‘I don’t want to take you out.’ But the situation and the inning of the game dictates what I have to do.”
With one year – and an option for 2018 that vests if he pitches 180 innings this season – remaining on his relatively cheap contract, Gonzalez could’ve been an attractive trade chip this winter and on the move if the Nationals had succeeded in their pursuit of Chris Sale. But Sale went to the Red Sox and Gonzalez was unexpendable, especially after the Nationals shipped Reynaldo Lopez and Lucas Giolito to the White Sox. So he’s back in for his sixth, and possibly final, season in Washington — seeking to get back to where he started.
“We need him,” Baker said. “I mean, we need him badly. I know everyone was hollering ‘Trade Gio, trade Gio,’ but we just know there’s something there that we haven’t tapped in a while.”