Underneath the navy blue Brewers sweatshirt was a white Hialeah T-shirt, a nod to Gio Gonzalez’s South Florida hometown, a place that matters more to him than most, something almost anyone who has followed the Nationals for six years knows by now. Gonzalez has always been one to make his feelings known, on the mound and off, for better and for worse.
The Brewers blue of his hoodie and hat clashed with the different shade of navy behind it, the one covered in white W’s that now represent Gonzalez’s past. The Nationals traded the left-hander to the Brewers before losing to Milwaukee, 4-1, Friday evening, the last of a series of cost-saving moves that signaled surrender. They are now 8½ games out of the final wild-card spot, with a roster nearly unrecognizable after being looted by teams they were expected to beat.
Gonzalez, meanwhile, hurried into a new era with a quick change of a hat and sweatshirt.
A few hours prior, the Nationals traded away Ryan Madson, too. Daniel Murphy, Matt Adams, Shawn Kelley, Brandon Kintzler and others became casualties of disappointment earlier. But none of them meant as much to this team as Gonzalez, who teared up when he talked about the deal afterward, his words leading anyone who knows him to make the inference that this team also meant more to him than it had to the others, too.
“I grew up here; I had my family here, my wife, my kids,” Gonzalez said, spitting out the words after a long pause in which he choked back tears. “Just sad to see it end.”
A moment later, he turned to the Brewers PR staffers and assured them. “But I’m happy,” he said.
This is Gonzalez, the man who has made more starts than anyone in Nationals history, as immutable in his friendliness as he was inconsistent with his command, as reliably jovial as he was maddeningly flighty.
The Nationals acquired two minor leaguers for his services and will save almost $2 million on his remaining 2018 salary. He will be a free agent this offseason, and the Nationals were never going to make him a qualifying offer. His numbers were not good. He never got back on track. But trading Gonzalez signaled a broader wave of change than all those other moves.
None of the others had been here so long. None of the others were so completely tied to Nationals history, and no one embodied their playoff struggles better than Gonzalez, who stood on the mound to begin two fruitless Game 5 showings and is winless in six postseason starts.
Gonzalez heard about the deal before the game. The Nationals didn’t want word to spread. News leaked anyway, trickling through the dugout in the early innings of a game in which the Nationals would go 1 for 15 with runners in scoring position against Jhoulys Chacin and the Milwaukee bullpen.
As Tanner Roark surrendered a two-run homer to Travis Shaw that ended up providing the winning runs, MASN cameras caught Gonzalez in a Nationals uniform chatting with Stephen Strasburg and Erick Fedde in the home dugout. He said later he made laps of the stadium, walked down to the bullpen to talk to his teammates. Because it wasn’t official, he didn’t have to change sides.
But evidence of the trade was clear in Gonzalez’s eyes and his face, which looked wistfully out at the field he called home for more than half a decade. The 32-year-old has felt this day coming for some time now, taking to lingering in his seat outside his locker, elbows on his knees, just soaking in the scene.
That scene has changed dramatically over the last few months, though change this great comes little by little, in moments such as clubhouse manager Mike Wallace carrying Madson’s jersey on hangers out of the clubhouse, or when the boxes of Jordan sneakers Gonzalez used to pass out were piled by his locker within minutes of the final rain-soaked out.
“This is part of the business,” Matt Wieters said. “They get it.”
Manager Dave Martinez agreed. Anyone who has been around the game has seen teammates come and go. But they have not seen this, here, before. Not since they charged toward the postseason in 2012 — nor since they acquired Gonzalez — have they abandoned contention so early and exited the stage so ungracefully.
“For me, it was a reality check,” Gonzalez said. “It was kind of a point to move on.”
Wieters, another free-agent-to-be some thought might depart Friday night, got ejected for arguing balls and strikes in the sixth. Martinez argued the decision, and he did so with expletives and pointing. Bryce Harper chirped, too. Frustration and resignation are mounting in the changing clubhouse, which will grow quieter without Gonzalez, if nothing else.
The Nationals Park crowds seem quieter now, too — though at one point in the seventh inning, a few fans in the season ticket sections tried to start a “Gio” chant to thank the lefty. It didn’t catch, but Gonzalez said later he heard fans hollering thank you. He nearly teared up again thinking about it.
When a pouring rain began to fall in the eighth, he was the only Nationals player lingering on the top step amid the deluge. He stared at the field, drenched and uncharacteristically quiet, retreating to drier parts of the dugout only when the growing storm gave him no other choice.
The hugs came later, from everyone around him.
“See you tomorrow,” Gonzalez told a few of them, before answering questions for reporters that included the advice he would give relatively inexperienced Brewers teammates about making a playoff run.
“Keeping the momentum — that joy of having fun and not thinking too much of it,” said Gonzalez, who watched the Nationals play like that six years ago, and watched his time here end because neither he, nor the organization, can seem to do that anymore.