Gio Gonzalez allowed only one hit in his Game 1 NLDS start.
So the Washington Nationals left-hander had a great game, right? Well, not so much.
Gonzalez issued seven walks during those five frames, throwing 110 pitches and 59 strikes. Instead of pitching the six or seven innings Nats manager Davey Johnson was surely hoping for, Gonzalez was done after five and Washington needed four relievers to finish off a 3-2 win over the Cardinals.
With his Game 1 performance, Gonzalez showed what prevents him from establishing himself as a true starting ace: control. Throughout his career, he has walked too many batters. If that continues, the Nationals might advance through the National League playoffs in spite of him, not because of him.
This season, Gonzalez was one of the best pitchers in the NL.
In his first year pitching in the league, Gonzalez finished with the sixth-best ERA at 2.89. His 207 strikeouts were tied for fourth among NL starters. Perhaps his most impressive statistic, the one that shows how dominant he could be, was his opponents' batting average of .206. That figure led the major leagues.
Gonzalez narrowly finished second in MLB with a rate of 6.73 hits allowed per nine innings. (The Los Angeles Dodgers' Clayton Kershaw allowed 6.72 per game.) Yet he finished seventh in the NL with a 1.13 WHIP (walks and hits per innings pitched) because of his walk numbers.
It could be argued that Gonzalez's walks will cost him a chance to win the NL Cy Young Award.
Perhaps not, since R.A. Dickey and Clayton Kershaw are ahead of him in ERA, strikeouts, innings pitched and, of course, WHIP. But he did allow fewer hits and led MLB with 21 wins. Though we've learned not to judge starting pitchers by their win total, those 21 victories could make a difference with some voters.
Gonzalez did do an impressive job in reducing his walks this season, however.
In 2010, he issued the third-most walks in MLB with 92. Last year, he issued 91 BBs and led the majors. This season, he cut his walk total to 76 and his rate per nine innings to 3.4. Both numbers are the lowest of his three seasons as a full-time (200 innings) starting pitcher.
Entering the postseason, one question surrounding the Nationals was whether or not they would ultimately suffer by shutting Stephen Strasburg down for the season. Could the Nats follow up on their regular-season success, finishing with the best record in MLB, and contend for a World Series championship without their best starting pitcher?
But the Nationals had another No. 1 starter—they had a pitcher who could be their ace throughout the postseason. Gonzalez was better than Strasburg this season. If Wins Above Replacement is your preferred measure of player value, he finished second in WAR at FanGraphs and fourth at Baseball-Reference.
Led by Gonzalez, the Nationals arguably have the best starting rotation of the NL playoff teams.
But the walk monster plagued Gonzalez again in his postseason debut. Maybe he was amped up from making his first-ever playoff start. Perhaps he wanted to shut down any talk that the Nats couldn't win a World Series without Strasburg. Maybe Gonzalez felt he had to prove himself to his teammates and manager.
Of course, the opposition may have had something to do with Gonzalez's performance too.
The Cardinals led the NL in team runs scored, batting average and OPS. St. Louis has four MVP candidates in its lineup with Yadier Molina, Matt Holliday, Carlos Beltran and David Freese. That's a fearsome lineup to face in Game 1 of a playoff series.
So maybe Gonzalez was worried about letting the Cardinals make contact. He probably shouldn't have been, since so few opposing batters did so against him this season. But maybe that got in his head a little bit. Or maybe he just had a bad game. The Nationals must be hoping so.
Because Gonzalez could only stay in the game for five innings, they had to use all of their top relievers to win Game 1. Perhaps Davey Johnson would've had to use four relievers anyway, depending on how the later innings played out.
But this places some pressure on Jordan Zimmermann to pitch deeper into Game 2 on Monday. Though the Nationals' top relievers succeeded all season, pitching in back-to-back games could make them less effective the rest of the series.
The Nats could close out this NLDS before Gonzalez has to pitch again, presumably in Game 5. But the team might be a little nervous about Gonzalez pitching in a decisive, do-or-die situation if his familiar control problems have come back.
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