MIAMI — Nine miles from Marlins Park is the working-class town of Hialeah where Gio Gonzalez grew up. So deep is the connection that the town’s name is embroidered on his glove.
Hialeah, Fla., is where Gonzalez’s father, Max, taught his son the curveball that has become one of baseball’s devastating pitches, the narrow practice space by the side of their house shaping the sharp break that is the pitch’s trademark. He never expected the pitch to become what it is today.
The Washington Nationals’ left-hander used a flurry of the knee-buckling, bat-freezing curveballs Saturday night at Marlins Park. But the pitches weren’t enough in Gonzalez’s first professional start in Miami, as the Marlins edged the Nationals, 2-1.
The buoyant Gonzalez, always with a grin and something to say, professed no unusual enthusiasm or nerves. Around 600 family and friends attended, some kidding him via pregame text messages that the I-95 freeway was clogged with traffic because so many people were en route to watch him pitch.
“He was excited,” Nationals manager Davey Johnson said. “He’s always a little excited.”
But Gonzalez’s curveballs that helped retire the first nine batters he faced couldn’t overcome the veteran left arm and blistering pace of Marlins starter Mark Buehrle. Last winter, Buehrle was the Nationals’ top free agent target. But the Marlins (42-45), spending like lottery winners to load up the new for their new stadium, gave him $58 million over four seasons.
Two weeks after the Nationals (50-35) missed out on Buehrle, general manager Mike Rizzo dealt four prospects to the Oakland Athletics for Gonzalez. So, Gonzalez ended up on the mound Saturday, telling himself each time the stadium’s noise increased that they were rooting for, not against, him.
“Use a little bit of reverse psychology,” said Gonzalez, who scattered five hits and two runs over six innings while striking out nine.
Gonzalez dropped curveball after curveball on the outside corner. He felt locked in on wherever Flores put his glove. The pitches weren’t hittable. Six of his strikeouts came on called third strikes with, of course, curveballs.
“They couldn’t see the ball,” Flores said.
But after Gonzalez struck out five of six batters, Jose Reyes, another pricey Marlins offseason acquisition, singled. The speedy leadoff man with 20 steals this season was sacrificed to second, where the threat of him stealing third appeared to distract distract Gonzalez from the hefty man at the plate, Carlos Lee.
“He didn’t make as quality of pitches as he would have liked to,” Johnson said.
Lee, acquired from the Houston Astros earlier this month, took one of those less-than-quality pitches and singled to center field and Reyes glided home.
More small ball got Gonzalez in the fifth, with another single-sacrifice-RBI single series. That was all the Marlins needed.
“Speed kills,” Gonzalez said. “That’s exactly what they were doing.”
Offense for the Nationals didn’t show up like Gonzalez’s hundreds-strong fan club. Michael Morse, who bombed home runs off the retractable windows in left field during batting practice, struck out three times. Danny Espinosa was caught looking on a 2-2 pitch with a man on second. The quick work of Buehrle didn’t seem to leave batters time to breathe. And Flores, with another man on second and the Nationals down to their final strike in the ninth, mustered only a weak swing and miss.