MIAMI — The city of Hialeah sits about nine miles to the north of Marlins Park, and Saturday night it may have nearly emptied. The local boy who grew up to become an ace for the Washington Nationals had come home. For Gio Gonzalez’s first start in his home town, he and his family secured more than 600 tickets. “I had so many calls, I had to stop answering my phone,” said his mother, Yolanda.
Gonzalez put on a show for them but in a 2-1 loss the Nationals’ offense provided scarce support and the Miami Marlins were just pesky enough. Gonzalez struck out nine and walked none in six innings. The Marlins turned five singles into two runs, both aided by sacrifice bunts. Coupled with the Atlanta Braves’ victory over the New York Mets, the loss sliced the Nationals’ lead in the National League East to three games.
“It was a shame,” Manager Davey Johnson said. “Gio pitched a heck of a ballgame. We had plenty of opportunities out there. We just couldn’t get it.”
Gonzalez likely would have been pitching for some other team this year if the Nationals had signed their intended free agent target to fill the need for a top left-handed starter. Their contract offer fell short, and so Mark Buehrle signed with the Marlins instead.
The situation could not have unfolded with better fortune for the Nationals. They instead traded for Gonzalez and signed him to a seven-year contract extension, locking up a 26-year-old who has now made consecutive all-star games. Saturday night, though, Buehrle stifled the Nationals for seven innings, allowing one run and striking out seven, robbing Gonzalez of the chance to become the first pitcher in the majors with 13 wins.
He still savored the night. Before the game, Gonzalez received text messages from friends alerting him of the traffic coming from Hialeah. On the mound, he could see his parents and his brother sitting behind home plate. Nationals catcher Jesus Flores could hear them cheering.
“The excitement, it’s just one of those things you dream about,” Gonzalez said. “That’s exactly how I felt. I’m just smiling knowing I had that kind of support, that kind of love.”
Gonzalez was untouchable in the early innings. Jose Reyes fought him for 13 pitches in the first at-bat of the game, but Gonzalez cruised afterward. He retired the first nine batters he faced and struck out five of them. He threw his curveball with great frequency, and the pitch almost made the game seem unfair. Four of his victims watched a third-strike curveball curl over the edge of the plate. Against right-handed batters, the curve started in the left-handed batter’s box, then snapped over the outside edge like a boomerang.
“Since the first inning, I knew he had a good one,” Flores said. “I knew I was going to call it a lot.”
In the fourth, though, Reyes struck again. He smoked a single back through the middle. Omar Infante pushed him to second base with a sacrifice bunt. With the speedy Reyes on second, Johnson felt Gonzalez’s attention drifted from the batter. “He didn’t make as quality of pitches as he’d like to,” Johnson said.
Gonzalez left a fastball at the belt for Carlos Lee, and he smacked it into right-center field to score the game’s first run. After a dominant first three innings, Gonzalez trailed, 1-0.
Buehrle held down the Nationals until the fourth. Ian Desmond led off with a bunt to the right side of the infield, and dove headfirst into first for a single. He nearly erased the hit by getting caught in a rundown by Buehrle, one of the game’s best pickoff artists, before making the best out of a bad situation.
As Desmond neared second base, he ran out of the baseline, straight at Reyes, the shortstop. Lee’s throw bounced off Desmond’s helmet and he scooted into second base safely. Desmond said he did not try to run into the ball, but the maneuver put him on second with no outs.
After a walk to Tyler Moore, Flores flared a soft line drive to left field. Desmond, as he had done the night before, correctly bolted without hesitation. The ball fell within inches of Reyes’s glove in shallow left, and Desmond scored with ease to tie the game.
The Nationals would not score again, thanks to two crucial missed opportunities. With two runners on and no outs, Gonzalez deadened a bunt to the left side of the infield. Buehrle, widely known as the league’s best fielding pitcher, scampered off the mound, spun and fired to third to cut down Moore by inches.
“If we could have got them over there, it might be a different ballgame,” Johnson said.
“Buehrle is Gold Glove for a reason,” Gonzalez said. “I made a great bunt, and he made a great play. Sometimes, that’s how it’s going to work.”
Still, Bryce Harper loaded the bases with a two-out walk, which brought Ryan Zimmerman to the plate. He fell behind, 0-2, and eventually struck out chasing a change-up in the dirt.
The Marlins took the lead with more small ball. Emilio Bonifacio led off the fifth against Gonzalez with a bunt single, and he moved to second on a bunt by Donovan Solano. John Buck drilled a single to left that scored Bonifacio and put them ahead, 2-1.
The Nationals (50-35) had another shot against Buehrle, when Moore led off the seventh with a single up the middle. Flores sacrificed Moore to second, and he moved to third with two out and Danny Espinosa walking to the plate. Buehrle froze Espinosa with a backdoor curveball for strike three.
The Nats did not go quietly in the ninth, either. With two outs and the bases empty, Roger Bernadina roped a single to center off Steve Cishek, the Marlins’ sidewinding, right-handed reliever. He then stole second, barely beating the throw from home. But Flores flailed at a 1-2 slider, an awkward swing that ended the game.
Most of the 28,707 fans at Marlins Park went home happy. The others, the cluster from down the road, went back to Hialeah.