MILWAUKEE — It was in the late hours of Aug. 31, after a game that won’t be remembered, on a night he won’t forget, that Gio Gonzalez’s past clashed head-on with his future.
He walked into the interview room at Nationals Park and sat in front of a Nationals-themed backdrop, wearing a dark-blue Milwaukee Brewers hoodie. He had just been traded to the Brewers from the Washington Nationals. The deal was completed at some point near the start of a rain-soaked game between the teams, early enough for fans to shout “Thank you, Gio!” and “We love you, Gio!” before he had gotten official word. Washington was his home. Washington was where he had started his family. Washington was where he won 21 games in 2012, the best season of his career, as he finished third in National League Cy Young voting.
But now the Nationals were shedding players, and Gonzalez was next. He was not the pitcher he once was. He had not been for months. He did not know how he would be used by the Brewers, if he would be a starter or a reliever or if he would even pitch at all. All he knew was that a fresh start, a needed fresh start, was ahead.
“Right now, August 31 is August 31, but now we’re what, October 10 or 11? Ready to go and pitch Game 1,” Gonzalez said Thursday, sporting a Brewers long-sleeve shirt inside another white-walled interview room, this one at Milwaukee’s Miller Park.
And, yes, he was talking about Game 1 of the National League Championship Series.
Gonzalez will lead the Brewers into an NLCS clash with the Los Angeles Dodgers on Friday night, and he will throw the first pitch of the series sometime around 8:09 p.m. Eastern time. The decision by Brewers Manager Craig Counsell comes despite Gonzalez’s spotty results in six career playoff starts, despite Gonzalez not pitching once in the Brewers' National League Division Series sweep of the Colorado Rockies, despite that, when Gonzalez joined Milwaukee, he had a 7-11 record and a 4.57 ERA as part of the Nationals' disappointing season.
Despite all of that, Counsell likes the way the left-handed Gonzalez matches up with the Dodgers' stacked lineup. He trusts the 33-year-old with the team’s 11-game winning streak and the next step of a spirited run. Counsell will continue to deploy his pitching staff in creative ways — he has recently used a reliever to start a game, and he does not hesitate to call on his bullpen early — so Gonzalez is simply expected to get as many outs as he can before trouble stirs.
That assignment should be easy enough. After the way these past few months have gone, Gonzalez is just happy to have it.
“I don’t know; I couldn’t explain what was going on,” Gonzalez said of what has happened for him since he left the Nationals. “I just wanted to pitch, and I think [the Brewers] really helped me out. Guys were making great plays. Guys were helping me out. Bullpen was unbelievable, so you knew . . . you could just go as long as you want and then you have the bullpen to kind of pick it up from there. That was a safe haven over there.
“So for me, I mean, it doesn’t take away from the guys that I got to play with in Washington. They were phenomenal, and I built such great relationships with guys over there. And now I’m hoping to do the same thing here in Milwaukee.”
A strong showing Friday could go a long way in linking himself to this franchise, and to this city.
Since the trade, Gonzalez is 3-0 in five starts with a 2.13 ERA. His biggest appearance came in Game 162 of the regular season, with the NL Central title still up for grabs, when he threw five scoreless innings in an 11-0 win. He has not come out of the bullpen, though there was some discussion that he may, and his Game 1 start will come on 11 days of rest.
But the playoffs have always presented some problems for Gonzalez. He has a 4.78 career ERA in the postseason, across six NLDS starts with the Nationals, and he gave up three runs in three innings (while walking four) in a Game 5 loss to the Chicago Cubs last fall. In his first career postseason start, all the way back in 2012, he took the ball in Game 1 of the NLDS and walked seven in five innings. In Game 5 of that series, with the season on the line, he let the St. Louis Cardinals chip away at a 6-0 deficit, giving up three runs before he was lifted in what turned into a gut-wrenching, 9-7 loss.
The Brewers are not going to ask too much of him Friday; Counsell stressed his commitment to bucking convention when it comes to his pitchers. The Brewers have a loaded bullpen with shutdown lefty Josh Hader, Corey Knebel and Jeremy Jeffress, all of whom served as the closer at some point this season, and all of whom could enter the game at any time. Counsell even noted that Jhoulys Chacin, the team’s announced starter for Game 3, would be available in Game 1, depending on the situation.
All hands are on deck. Gonzalez will just be the first to come out of the dugout, which he called a “pretty cool story.”
“He just got into a spot where it’s simply a fresh start and simply a place where, you know, any player that’s traded, there’s a little more juice there,” Counsell said of how Gonzalez earned his trust in such a big spot. “You got to prove yourself, even though you’re an established major leaguer.”
Such a long wait between appearances is not totally foreign to Gonzalez. When he joined Milwaukee, and as Counsell mulled over how to deploy his newest arm, Gonzalez waited in the dugout for seven games before he got his first chance in a Brewers uniform. The time away from pitching gave him a chance to take a step back, to look at the previous few months, at what was working and what wasn’t, and what he could do differently, given a blank slate.
But he still itched for the mound. It didn’t matter if it was as a starter or out of the bullpen or in the opening game of the Brewers' third appearance in a league championship series. It never has.
“I just want to pitch. I’m grateful I get to pitch another postseason game, and with another team now,” Gonzalez said late Thursday afternoon. “I was almost on my way home the end of September. So to sit here, and I’m pitching Game 1 of the second round, I think that’s . . . it’s pretty remarkable, pretty incredible, and hopefully I get to tell my kids about this one day.”
And with that, Gonzalez grabbed his Brewers hat off the table in front of him and walked quickly out of the room, toward the Brewers clubhouse, toward his new locker surrounded by his new teammates, and into the 27 hours leading into the next biggest start of his life.
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