LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — Before Tuesday afternoon, the Washington Nationals had seen only one version of Gio Gonzalez. They had come to know the playful competitor who might yell “Recognize!” after throwing a pitch in practice, the cut-up who fiddles with the clubhouse stereo, the chatterbox who jokes with anybody who can hear him.
When Gonzalez walked out to center field at Champions Stadium to warm up for his first spring training start, the Nationals saw the other side of their new left-hander. Heeding his pregame ritual, Gonzalez slipped a pair of headphones over his ears.
“It’s like the horse when he puts his little blinders on,” Gonzalez said. “That’s how I am. Once I put my headphones on, I can’t hear no one, I can’t see no one. It’s just me and where I want to be.”
In his spring training unveiling, Gonzalez showed why the Nationals shipped four prospects to Oakland for him in a December blockbuster, then signed him to a $42 million contract extension. Gonzalez baffled the Atlanta Braves for three scoreless innings, lighting up the stadium’s radar gun with 95-mph fastballs and buckling the Braves with his one-of-a-kind curveball.
Gonzalez allowed one hit, a groundball single through the right side, walked one and struck out two, all-star leadoff hitter Michael Bourn and Matt Diaz. He felt anxious pitching for the first time as a National, even in March. Gonzalez told pitching coach Steve McCatty in the bullpen before the game, “Talk to me if I’m rushing, if you see me going too fast.”
“My adrenaline was kicking,” Gonzalez said. “My arm felt live. Definitely, there’s stuff I still want to work on. I still want to get some breaking balls for strikes, and change-ups. Again, this is a first outing for me. There’s more to go.”
If Gonzalez felt an extra gear in his first start with his new team, it showed. In the first inning, Gonzalez threw a 95-mph fastball to Martin Prado, the second batter of the game. Gonzalez averaged 92.5 miles per hour with his fastball last season, , sixth fastest among left-handed starters in the majors, according to data gathered by FanGraphs.com.
In the clubhouse afterward, Gonzalez joked: “I don’t know if their guns were juiced.” But Gonzalez wanted to test his arm, to find out where he stood so early in spring.
“In spring training I definitely want to come out the chute right off the bat and try to show a little life on the fastball, see if I’m still feeling good,” Gonzalez said. “I know a couple of days ago I was talking about, ‘Damn, my velocity’s not there.’ I didn’t feel it too much but the gun says what it says. I guess I’m trying to play tricks on my arm.”
Even in his first spring start, Gonzalez approached the game with a competitive edge. Still 26, Gonzalez is not far removed from establishing himself in Oakland, from using spring training as a means to win a job rather than preparing for the season.
“It feels like every time I get the ball I want to go out there and compete,” Gonzalez said. “I feel like I’m still fighting for a job in this rotation. There’s plenty of live arms here, and I just want to keep up with them. I’ve always had that mind-set everywhere I go.”
Afterward, Gonzalez was effusive in praising his defense, catcher Wilson Ramos, McCatty and even strength coach John Philbin. He has frequently said he wants merely to blend in with his new team during the spring, which may be a challenge for a pitcher with his electric arm and big personality.
Gonzalez allowed Ramos to dictate the game, relying on his knowledge of the Braves’ hitters. Having pitched his whole career in the American League, Gonzalez will lean on Ramos, especially early in the season.
“He made me excited for working behind the plate with him,” Ramos said. “He followed me. He believed in me. He told me before the game he would throw everything I called. I was really excited for this game today.”
Ramos said he could sense a clear change in Gonzalez’s focus on the mound Tuesday compared to his carefree demeanor otherwise. Manager Davey Johnson said Gonzalez has introduced himself so many times it has become a running joke. “He’s a character,” Johnson said. “But he was impressive out there.”
On game days, Gonzalez starts listening to music in the clubhouse, usually Motown, something easy and laid-back. When he goes to the field, he switches to hip-hop — the kind of songs, he said, his parents don’t like.
“The new era comes out when I’m out there pitching,” Gonzalez said. “The old school stays here.”