Gonzalez wins 20th as Nats trounce Brewers

Gonzalez wins 20th as Nats trounce Brewers
September 22, 2012, 10:38 pm
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Two winters ago, Miami personal trainer Sergio Pacheco handed client Gio Gonzalez a folder. Inside was a detailed conditioning plan, but what the young left-hander remembers more was what was written on the outside.

It read: "Project 20." The goal: Turn Gonzalez into a 20-game winner in the big leagues.

"I sit back and I laugh about it, but that's every day, when I worked out with him, it was ... something we wanted to strive for. In a way, you kind of smile about it, because we finally reached our goal, and now it's time to change it up and continue to try and get better goals and higher goals."

Gonzalez will have to set a greater standard for himself in 2013, because he'll forever be etched into the 2012 record book as the majors' first 20-game winner after a dominating performance Saturday during the Nationals' 10-4 victory over the Brewers.

On a pitching staff that boasts the most-hyped young arm in a generation, a young right-hander who owned the league's best ERA earlier this summer, a World Series champion and author of a no-hitter and another guy who was the sixth overall pick in the draft five years ago, it was Gonzalez who was first to 20 wins.

And that was treated in the Nationals clubhouse as one of the most significant accomplishments of the year.

"Oh, it's always huge," manager Davey Johnson said. "Pitching is the main thing in baseball, and when you can win 20, that's the mark of Cy Young. It's just everything. It's bigger than a hitter, for me, hitting .300. He's had just a phenomenal year."

And the kind of year baseball fans in Washington haven't seen in a long time. A really long time.

Not only is Gonzalez D.C.'s first 20-game winner since 1953, when Bob Porterfield went 22-10 for the Senators. He's also the city's first pitcher to record 200 strikeouts since 1916, when the incomparable Walter Johnson whiffed 228 batters over an astounding 369 23 innings.

All this from a 27-year-old lefty who enjoyed success the previous two years in Oakland but was mostly unknown around Washington when general manager Mike Rizzo surprisingly traded away four top prospects to acquire him in December, then signed him to a five-year extension.

"I knew Mike Rizzo, I knew that for him to give up what we gave up, I knew he was special," Johnson said. "His personality. His competitiveness. He has fun."

Gonzalez is among the most popular players in the Nationals clubhouse, his effervescent smile and boundless energy keeping teammates loose day in and day out. And they heaped praise upon the lefty following this game, whether dumping a bucket of Gatorade on him as he conducted a television interview or hanging about a dozen 20 bills in his locker.

"He obviously has a great personality," third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. "I think that's kind of the way this whole team is, though. He fit in perfectly with all of us."

Great personality or not, what impresses teammates most about Gonzalez is his arsenal of pitches, from a 95 mph fastball to a 78 mph curveball that induces some of the ugliest swings you'll ever see from big-league hitters.

"I've faced guys like him where it's just easy, effortless fuel coming out of his hand," first baseman Adam LaRoche said. "And then that curveball that he's got obviously has some serious depth to it. And then he can throw a changeup on top of it. So he's got all the pitches."

When he's not blowing away opposing hitters, Gonzalez is leaving his teammates in hysterics. While attempting to throw a pitch to Martin Maldonado during the top of the seventh on Sunday, he caught a spike in the mound and wound up falling face-first onto the grass. As he lie there for a few seconds, a hush came over the sellout crowd of 40,493.

Johnson, pitching coach Steve McCatty, a trainer and Nationals infielders arrived on the scene and asked Gonzalez if he was hurt.

"Absolutely," he told them. "My pride is."

Gonzalez proceeded to strike out Maldonado on his very next pitch, then snagged a comebacker from Jean Segura to end the inning and his afternoon on a light note.

At that point, the Nationals held a commanding, 10-2 lead, thanks to a six-run explosion in the bottom of the fourth against former teammate Livan Hernandez. Zimmerman and Ian Desmond each clubbed three-run homers off their long-time pal. LaRoche later added a solo shot, his 32nd of the season to match a career high.

Put that all together, and the Nationals were able to enjoy a rare laugher, one that allowed them to lower their magic number for the NL East crown to 6 with 11 days left in the regular season.

That also allowed them to focus their attention on the biggest individual performance of the day, one authored by a popular left-hander who two winters ago made it his mission to win 20 games and on Sunday basked in the glory of achieving his goal.

"This is like a dream," Gonzalez said. "And I feel like I'm still sleeping in it."