Surpassing his first season in Washington may have felt like a burden for Gio Gonzalez, if only the notion of burdens fit into Gonzalez’s worldview. He is not the kind of person who dwells or worries. Let expectations soar. Let Major League Baseball investigate him. He will overwhelm an opposing lineup, drill a curveball through the chilling wind and smile as he floats around the bases.
Wednesday night, in the first start of his encore season, Gonzalez keyed the Washington Nationals’ 3-0 victory over the overmatched Miami Marlins with six shutout innings and the second home run of his career. Before 26,269 hunched against the cold, Gonzalez’s performance continued the giddy beginning to 2013 at Nationals Park, which has included two more curtain calls than runs scored by the visitor.
Behind opening day ace Stephen Strasburg, Gonzalez and their reworked bullpen, the Nationals have opened the season with two straight shutouts — becoming just the 13th team to accomplish that since 1900 — while allowing the underwhelming Marlins lineup only seven hits. Up next is Jordan Zimmermann, the 26-year-old right-hander who posted a 2.94 ERA last year.
“It’s not really hard to fathom,” said reliever Ryan Mattheus, who tossed a scoreless seventh. “I look at this staff, and that’s what I expect. I see one through five, and then the bullpen, the seven guys we got, I think there’s going to be a lot of shutouts.”
New closer Rafael Soriano added a pinch of drama Wednesday, allowing a hit and walk to bring the tying run to the plate with one out in the ninth before securing his second save with a deep fly to center. Bryce Harper notched two more hits, including an eighth-inning double that nearly knocked over the right field wall.
The Nationals will lose a game soon. Two games in, as pitchers clobber homers and Denard Span cruises around center field and Soriano untucks his jersey, it just remains a bit difficult to see how.
“The two guys we fired out there, that can happen any given night,” first baseman Adam LaRoche said. “They’re dominant. That’s what they do. It’s nice to know we got three others behind them that are right there, toe-to-toe.”
Two factors offered Gonzalez more resistance than the Marlins. He pitched in short sleeves despite the 45-degree temperature at first pitch and howling wind. He spent most of his time between pitches blowing into his left hand to keep it warm. (He told MASN afterward, “I felt like I was making love to my hand.”)
In the Nationals’ dugout prior to first pitch, the heater ran out of propane. Hitting coach Rick Eckstein walked past as suddenly the unit came roaring to life. “My hitting coach almost caught on fire,” Manager Davey Johnson said.
The conditions exacerbated the headache Gonzalez felt during his final pregame warmup in the bullpen. “We were worried about him,” Johnson said. Gonzalez popped two Advil, and between innings John Tsu, a member of the Nationals’ medical staff, massaged his temples.
“I was trying to stay focused and let the Advil take over, do what it does,” Gonzalez said. “Thank God for the training staff.”
The headache, Gonzalez said, prevented him from pitching with maximum effort. The results said otherwise. Gonzalez dominated in the same style that led to 21 wins and a third-place finish in the Cy Young vote in 2012. He allowed the Marlins two hits, striking out five while walking two. He twice whiffed slugger Giancarlo Stanton waving at curveballs that crashed into the dirt. He found trouble only once, allowing a leadoff double and a walk in the fifth inning, only to squirm out of it with a double play and a strikeout on his physics-defying curve.
He cruised on the mound, but he made a memory at the plate. Last season, Gonzalez hit the first home run of his career in Houston against the Astros. Afterward, Stephen Strasburg teased Gonzalez, telling him he would actually start to see breaking balls from opposing pitchers. And, in fact, after the homer, Gonzalez finished the season 1 for 21.
Slowey, then, could not be blamed for starting his fifth-inning encounter with Gonzalez with a 76-mph curveball — Gonzalez had seen only four first-pitch curves in his whole career. This curve hung, and Gonzalez, who bats right-handed even though he throws left, smashed it to left.
“Lucky swing,” Gonzalez said. “I think I closed my eyes.”
The crowd rose as the ball sliced through the chill, into the wind. In these conditions, off the bat of a pitcher swinging at a breaking ball, could it really clear the wall?
“LaRoche crushed a couple balls that didn’t go anywhere,” Mattheus said. “So you know Gio got it pretty good.”
The smash landed in the front row. Gonzalez glided around the bases, pursing his lips and glancing at the ground so as not to smile. He cracked once he crossed the plate and peered into the dugout. The crowd chanted, “Gi-O! Gi-O!” Harper had taken a curtain call opening day, and Game 2 brought Gonzalez’s chance. He emerged from the dugout and lifted his hand, still clutching one of his white batting gloves, into the air.
“Everybody is already talking about having to hear about it for the next two weeks,” LaRoche said.
The bullpen preserved the shutout. After he used Tyler Clippard as the eighth-inning setup man Monday, Johnson tabbed Drew Storen. Making his first appearance at Nationals Park since Game 5 of last year’s NLDS unraveled, Storen had an easy 1-2-3 inning, with an assist from Span’s outstanding catch on the warning track.
Those who braved the cold for all nine innings could watch as Span squeezed the final out. After only two games, the season has already taken on a delirious tone. The Nationals still have not allowed a run, let alone lost, and their free-swinging, ever-smiling ace cranked a home run.
“Hopefully he hits another one,” Storen said. “And he can talk all year about it.”