MIAMI — A standing ovation showered Gio Gonzalez as he walked off the mound during the ninth inning at Marlins Park on Monday night. He was in Washington Nationals grays, a pitcher in enemy territory, but this is home and the fans understood that. They recognized that Gonzalez, a proud son of Hialeah, a town eight miles away from this neon behemoth nestled in Little Havana, had just pitched perhaps the game of his life on a night when emotions were elevated beyond the imaginable for a baseball game.
Monday would have been the late Jose Fernandez’s 25th birthday, and that was on Gonzalez’s mind as he walked to the visitors’ dugout. He turned to the Marlins’ dugout, where players were clapping for him. He pumped his glove in their direction before tipping his cap to the crowd in front of him, acknowledging the rare warm applause for an opponent. Dee Gordon had just broken up Gonzalez’s no-hit bid with a clean single to center field to lead off the bottom of the ninth inning of Washington’s 1-0 win, but that was forgotten for that stroll.
“It was tough,” Gonzalez said. “I mean, today, it was too much on my mind.”
Gonzalez was taken out after Gordon’s single, which came on his 106th pitch. He invited the removal. With his wife, Lea, back in D.C. on the cusp of giving birth to their second child and the emotions of pitching on Fernandez’s birthday, he was gassed — mentally, emotionally, physically. There was a man at first base with no outs, Giancarlo Stanton was about to step to the plate, and the game was up for grabs.
Manager Dusty Baker, meanwhile, didn’t want to repeat what happened the last time the Nationals were in South Florida, when Max Scherzer carried a no-hitter into the eighth inning and not only lost it but lost the game. So Baker ambled out to replace Gonzalez with Sean Doolittle, who secured the final three outs for his fourth save since joining the Nationals a couple weeks ago.
“I’ll be honest with you,” said Gonzalez, who was wearing a shirt with Hialeah spread across the front. “It was just like, ‘All right. That’s it. I’m exhausted. Let’s go. Go get the man, close this game out and let’s go. I want to go home.’ ”
Fernandez was killed in a boating accident last September, days after striking out 12 against the Nationals at Marlins Park. It turned out to be his last performance, an appropriately electrifying finale for the vibrant talent. To commemorate the beloved ace, Fernandez’s mother, grandmother, girlfriend and 5-month-old daughter, Penelope, attended Monday’s game, marking the first time the family attended one since Fernandez’s death.
Fittingly, Gonzalez was the opposing starting pitcher for it. Gonzalez visited with Fernandez’s family before first pitch. He held Penelope. Fernandez’s mother cried. Gonzalez and his brother Max, Cuban Americans from the Miami area, were close friends with the Cuban-born Fernandez. They were fishing buddies during the offseason, and Fernandez’s death left Gonzalez distraught. He attended the funeral a day after an emotional outing against the Marlins in Washington late last September. He lasted just three innings that night. He was better Monday.
Pitching in Miami for the first time since he was snubbed from playing in the All-Star Game here, Gonzalez warmed up before the game with a ball marked with Fernandez’s initials and No. 16. He then held Miami to one hit, walked three and hit a batter while striking out five. He coaxed weak contact and received some help from his defense to preserve the no-hit attempt. In the second inning, Brian Goodwin made a sliding grab in center field to rob Mike Aviles of a hit. In the sixth, shortstop Wilmer Difo made a diving play to his right side to prevent Miguel Rojas from breaking the no-no. And in the eighth inning, Aviles lined out to Bryce Harper, who battled the lights in right to make the catch.
But the hard-hit balls were few and far between. Gonzalez (9-5) was efficient and, at times, overwhelming with a dynamite curveball he spun wherever he wanted, whenever he wanted. Perhaps no more so than when he dispatched Gordon in the sixth inning.
Gonzalez threw Gordon, who was at the plate with two outs, a first-pitch curveball. Gordon took it for a strike. Then Gonzalez threw him another curveball. Gordon swung through it for strike two. Gonzalez didn’t overthink it and threw another breaking ball, this one in the dirt. Gordon swung through it, flinging his bat toward Gonzalez as he whiffed for strike three. Gonzalez bent over to playfully field the lumber and fake a throw to first base before giving it to Gordon and walking to the dugout.
“He was really focused and very calm,” Baker said. “The best I’ve seen him. And the longest I’ve seen him. We were all hoping for it. Nobody was saying anything, but he knew it, the fans knew it, everybody knew it. Man, he gave us all he had.”
The Nationals (63-41) arrived in Miami at 4 a.m. Monday, fresh off an inconvenient doubleheader in the District on Sunday, for a three-day skirmish with their closest competition in the National League East. The Marlins (49-55) weren’t very close, though. The Nationals’ division lead stood at 13 games — light-years with two months to go.
While Washington’s front office spent the last few weeks exploring ways to tinker and improve the team’s bullpen, which culminated with the acquisition of Brandon Kintzler minutes before Monday’s 4 p.m. nonwaiver trade deadline, the Marlins and the three other NL East clubs were selling off pieces, resigned to the notion that the Nationals are en route to their second straight division crown.
The Nationals have ridden the NL’s best offense to that wide margin but entered Monday having given Gonzalez just eight runs of support over his previous six starts. The scarcity continued Monday at the hands of Jose Urena, who held the visitors scoreless until the sixth inning. It took until then for the Nationals to manufacture the game’s first run in textbook fashion: Goodwin led off the frame with a double, took third on Wilmer Difo’s sacrifice bunt, and scored on Harper’s single to left field.
Gonzalez continued plowing through the Marlins’ lineup, retiring 14 straight until he issued a one-out walk to Christian Yelich in the seventh inning. The hiccup was soon erased as Gonzalez induced a pair of ground balls to maneuver out of the fray, six outs from delivering the fourth no-hitter in Nationals and the sixth no-hitter in Washington, D.C., baseball history.
He fell three outs short because Gordon stayed back on a 1-1 curveball and dropped it into the outfield grass in left-center field. Gonzalez said he was gassed and left the pitch up in the zone. It was the end to an emotional day, one he will never forget.
More on the Nationals