On the days Gio Gonzalez starts, he blares Motown music throughout the Washington Nationals clubhouse, flits around the room and chatters at teammates, reporters, broadcasters, anyone who will listen. He grew up in Miami and became a professional out of high school. He is a left-hander, a curveball maestro and an unrepentant goofball. ¶ On the days Stephen Strasburg starts, he arrives later than most teammates and glowers in almost total silence, rarely leaving the small circumference around his locker. He grew up in San Diego and went to college for three years. He is a right-hander, the hardest-throwing starter in the league and a natural introvert. ¶ “One’s a butterfly traveling at 150” mph, pitching coach Steve McCatty said. “And the other one’s a plodder on that straight course.” ¶ Strasburg and Gonzalez are both all-stars. Tuesday night in Kansas City they will stand next to each other, lined up among the best players on the planet, and represent the Nationals, the team they have lifted to the best record in the National League midway through their first season together. ¶ For the odd couple at the top of the Nationals’ rotation, it is only the beginning. Strasburg cannot become a free agent until after the 2016 season, and Gonzalez signed a contract extension that could keep him here through 2018. They will grow into the prime of their careers in Washington. ¶ Here may be the oddest thing about the odd couple: They really, truly like each other. Strasburg, 23, and Gonzalez, 26, get along not despite their differences, but because of them.
“Opposites attract, right?” Gonzalez said. “I think that’s how we click so well. I kind of like to kick back a little bit and enjoy some of the moments, where he’s always trying to get better and better and better. I want that guy by my side, because he’s going to push me to get better. To me, that’s why he’s our number one.”
Strasburg said most of his friends back home are like Gonzalez. “He does all the talking for me,” Strasburg said with a slight grin. Gonzalez was a chatterbox from the moment he walked into the Nationals’ clubhouse in spring training.
“Three or four days after I first met him, I said, ‘Do you go home and ice your vocal cords at night?’” starter Jordan Zimmermann said.
When he met Strasburg, Zimmermann said, only half jokingly, “Oh, yeah, we didn’t talk for about a month and a half.”
Inside the clubhouse, teammates have noticed Strasburg thaw in his first full season and start to show his sharp wit. “He’s joking around more,” Zimmermann said. “Even last year at the end of the year, he would sit in his locker and not really say much.”
Gonzalez has tried to draw out Strasburg’s personality. Strasburg’s focus helps make him who he is on the mound; teammate Jayson Werth described him earlier this year as “a killer.” But McCatty has also spoken with him about trying to enjoy the game more. “I don’t know if the right word is ‘enjoy,’ ” McCatty said. “It doesn’t cross my mind when he’s out there.”
Between starts, Gonzalez, Strasburg and Zimmermann almost constantly talk baseball in the dugout. They discuss how they’ll pitch specific hitters. “Usually, it ends with Gio telling a story that makes those guys laugh,” General Manager Mike Rizzo said.
“You got to have, once in a while, that guy that actually kind of makes it easier, that can break the ice when you’re having a little trouble,” Gonzalez said. “It’s not all about baseball when we talk. You can have some knowledge when the game is going on.
“But Stras is human. He does have a life, just like everybody else. That’s what I try to do. I try to bring out the fun about baseball. It’s not all about baseball. To him, he works so hard. You don’t want to burn him out. You want him to enjoy the fruits of his labor.”
Strasburg insists he does enjoy himself on the mound, even if it doesn’t show. He loves the competition, when he makes a hitter look stupid or when he tries to learn from a mistake. His fixed facial expression, he said, is by design, a result of studying other aces.
“If you look at some of the top guys in the game, if you were to take a close-up and just show their facial expressions throughout the game, whether it’s going good or bad, you really can’t tell the difference,” Strasburg said. “That’s something I try to do.
“It’s fun to look back and it’s fun to win. At the same time, I’m more focused. I’m trying to get really focused out there. I don’t know if that makes me look like I’m not having fun out there. It doesn’t matter to me.”
Gonzalez said Strasburg reminded him in some ways of Dallas Braden, the veteran starter who served as his mentor with the Oakland A’s. Even though Strasburg is three years younger than him, Gonzalez reveres Strasburg for his advice and knowledge, the way he can break down an at-bat against a certain hitter.
“I put him way up there as one of those guys I admire,” Gonzalez said. “These guys, you want to hear him talk, because you never know how important those words coming out of his mouth could be.”
Gonzalez and Strasburg have helped each other, but they have not necessarily influenced each other. Gonzalez still yaps, and Strasburg still never changes his countenance during a start. McCatty said all pitchers have different ways to handle the pressure of a start, and Strasburg and Gonzalez represent opposite poles.
“I could never go out there and pitch the way he does, and I don’t think he could go out there and pitch the way I do,” Strasburg said. “We go about it a different way.”
Last week, the Nationals held a news conference for their all-star players. Gonzalez entered the room first and saw rows of reporters. “Take it easy on us,” he bellowed, a mock-serious countenance giving way to a grin. “We’re not going to shoot right away. We’re going to wait for Stras to get all his answers ready.”
Strasburg’s expression never changed as he walked behind Gonzalez.
As they settled into their seats, a public relations official introduced two members of the Nationals’ Wounded Warrior softball team who were on hand. The PR guy explained they had been chosen to play in the celebrity softball game during all-star weekend. Gonzalez grabbed the microphone.
“Make us proud,” Gonzalez told them. “A couple bombs, that’s all we ask.”
Strasburg stared straight ahead, content to let Gonzalez do the talking for him.
Strasburg and Gonzalez have talked about ways to hang out more often. Gonzalez suggested mini golf, and Strasburg had designs on the real thing. “I’m trying to get him lessons in the offseason so I can take his money in spring training,” Strasburg said.
Strasburg laughed at the idea, a wide grin on his face, and for just one moment, he and Gonzalez did not seem so different after all.