Another bad start raises questions about Gio's arm

Another bad start raises questions about Gio's arm
May 17, 2014, 9:00 pm
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Since joining the Nationals 2 1/2 years ago, Gio Gonzalez has been prone to the occasional ragged start, sometimes the downright ugly start. But it has never happened to him twice in a row, and that's why alarm bells are now ringing in the wake of the left-hander's poor performance Saturday during a 5-2 loss to the Mets.

Even more cause for alarm than Gonzalez's sub-par numbers? The fact that his throwing shoulder appears to be something less than 100 percent healthy.

Gonzalez talked his way around the subject when asked twice postgame about his shoulder, which prompted an early exit from a start last month, but he couldn't completely conceal his concern about the state of the arm that to date has allowed him to make 162 starts in the big leagues without a single stint on the disabled list.

"Uh, realistically, arm was dropping a lot," he said when asked directly whether anything was going on with him physically. "I guess we'll see."

Gonzalez's velocity was fine on Saturday — his four-seam fastball averaged 93.6 mph and topped out at 95.4 mph — but his command was not. He labored through the top of the first inning, needing 37 pitches to face nine batters, allowing three runs on four hits and two walks.

By the time he completed the third inning, he had allowed five runs while throwing a whopping 84 pitches. He fell behind in the count to nine of the 17 batters he faced on the afternoon, going to a 3-ball count against seven of them.

"Way too many pitches, missing the zone, not throwing it where he wanted to," manager Matt Williams said. "Just inconsistent. And getting behind. If you get behind at this level, you're going to pay for it."

That's precisely what happened to Gonzalez six days earlier in Oakland, when he served up a pair of 3-run homers on 3-0 pitches to catcher Derek Norris. Combine that start with this one, and Gonzalez has given up 12 earned runs while putting 21 men on base over 7 1/3 innings, seeing his ERA skyrocket from 2.91 to 4.62.

The 12 earned runs match the most he has ever allowed in back-to-back starts. The 7 1/3 innings are the fewest he has totaled in consecutive starts since Sept. 2009, when he sported a career ERA over 6.00 and had yet to pitch a full season in the big leagues.

"Coming up with the A's, I had some rough starts," the lefty said. "It's most staying positive, believing in yourself, mentally breaking through it. Something has got to snap, where it's got to be in a positive way."

Gonzalez may be able to harken back to his early days when trying to remember how he bounced back from poor outings, but he has no previous experience dealing with injury. And while nobody with the Nationals definitively is saying there's anything wrong with his arm, the subtle signs certainly are there.

Though his velocity isn't diminished, Gonzalez and Williams spoke of him having trouble finding a proper arm slot. That could be a sign of injury. If Gonzalez's shoulder isn't allowing him to raise his arm high enough to get on top of pitches, he would be forced to throw from a lower angle, which leads to poor command.

"We ask him, and he says he feels fine," Williams said. "It’s just a question of being inconsistent with his ... his release point is a little bit all over the place. But that's somewhat typical of him sometimes. And he tends to zone it in as he gets into the game. But the last two, that hasn't been the case."

Head athletic trainer Lee Kuntz sought out both Gonzalez and Williams in the Nationals' clubhouse following the game. Is a medical issue — significant or insignificant — to blame for the lefty's recent struggles? That question hasn't fully been answered yet.

Gonzalez's unusually dour demeanor at the end of another rough day at the ballpark, though, certainly suggested something isn't right with a pitcher who for seven big-league seasons has never had to worry about the state of his left arm.

"You know, it's one of those things you've just got to keep grinding through," Gonzalez said. "Just trying to find out what it is. Hopefully, something positive comes out of it."