ATLANTA — A week ago, Gio Gonzalez looked to be slipping. After lasting at least six innings in every start but one from late May to early September, he had failed to record an out in the sixth in two straight outings. After allowing more than four runs once from April to late August, Gonzalez had allowed five in two of his previous three starts.
But Wednesday, Gonzalez pitched out of the stretch in just one of the seven strong innings he provided. He allowed two runs — both on solo homers — three hits, one walk and struck out eight. When he fell behind, he pitched back into counts. Twice, he fell behind 3-0. Both times, he struck those batters out. After allowing five runs to the Braves in five innings last week, Gonzalez all but shut them down.
“It was not bad pitches [last time], they were just located a little higher than usual,” Gonzalez said. “This time, we were attacking the strike zone, we were being more aggressive with the fastball in certain counts, then using the off-speed and curveball when I needed it. And as far as that, Matt [Wieters], I give all the credit to him.”
Gonzalez’s ERA when working with Wieters is 2.77, lowest he has with any catcher who has caught him in at least 15 games. His next lowest ERA with any catcher is 3.43. His ERA with Jose Lobaton, who used to be his personal catcher because of their rapport, is 3.49.
“It seems like him and Wieters — and when Jose’s been back there with him — it’s moving the ball in two different directions. He’s got the comebacker to the righties, throwing his breaking ball and his change-up for strikes when he needs to get early contact or to get back into the count when he’s gotten behind,” Daniel Murphy said. “From second base, it’s been fun to watch the rapport with him and the catchers. He’s been executing pitches.”
Gonzalez’s 2017 numbers should not be mistaken for a restoration of his old Cy Young form, but rather as a sign of reinvention. His fastball no longer sits in the mid-90s, but dances in the high 80s. His curveball is no longer a strikeout pitch as much as a get-over pitch, adapted to the breaking-ball-heavy times. His change-up is no longer a third pitch, but is an integral one.
Gonzalez, who made his first start as a 32-year-old Wednesday, has transformed from a frustrating but durable starter into an efficient workhorse that waxes elite. For most of this season, he avoided waning mediocre. But in his last three starts, Gonzalez stalled.
So what the lefty showed the Nationals on Wednesday, even in an imperfect effort, was that he had not lost it, whatever it is. He looked like the man who nearly threw a no-hitter, who has hovered in the league’s top five in ERA all season — like the kind of guy they would want pitching Game 3 in the playoffs. The other choice for that game would be Tanner Roark, who has a 3.18 ERA and has struck out 74 batters in 68 innings in the second half.
“We’re going to go with what we think is the best against who we’re playing,” Nationals Manager Dusty Baker said. “So right now, we’re just trying to win as many games as we can, get some momentum. We had lost momentum there after we clinched it. Guys are swinging the bats better, we got more life, more enthusiasm. We want to finish strong.”
Gonzalez will probably get two more starts before the playoffs. His 2.68 ERA is fifth-lowest in the majors behind Clayton Kershaw, Corey Kluber, Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg. If the Nationals choose Gonzalez for Game 3, they will use three of the five stingiest starters in baseball in the first three games of a five-game series.
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