- The Washington Times
Thursday, May 25, 2017

Over here or over there are viable choices for blame.

If Gio Gonzalez pitched more efficiently, more effectively, more like he had in April, then he would have still been on the mound when Nelson Cruz came to hit in the sixth inning with two runners on.

If Nationals manager Dusty Baker had a more reliable bullpen with longer or successful track records against Cruz, then selecting a reliever to face a man who has averaged 42 home runs the last three season would be easier.

Instead, Baker dealt with a doubling-down of his complications. So, he decided to remove Gonzalez in favor of Jacob Turner. Cruz then hit a centrally-located slider beyond the fence. Seattle beat the Washington Nationals, 4-2, on Thursday afternoon because of it.

“I know Gio wanted to stay in the game, but I thought the fresh arm — it’s the third time around — that third or fourth time around, you’re kind of flirting with danger, with a dangerous hitter up there,” Baker said. “So that’s what I saw. It didn’t work. My responsibility. I was put in that position in order to make that decision.”

Gonzalez’s inefficient outings can have all the allure of licking sandpaper. Despite allowing just a hit in the first five innings, Thursday provided that not-so-welcome grimy taste. Gonzalez needed 87 pitches to corral the first 15 outs of his day. Strangely, just one, an 0-2 curveball to Kyle Seager, became a hit during that time.

Jean Segura began the sixth with a single. After a strikeout, and the ejection of Seattle manager Scott Servais, Robinson Cano singled. That was the end for Gonzalez. He threw 96 pitches in 5 ⅓ innings, precisely the model of outing he tries to avoid yet often veers into.

He left the mound with an eight-strikeout, three-hit, no-run performance on the horizon if Turner could end the inning; a salvage job on a cloudy day. That was until Cruz abolished that possibility with his 12th home run.

“I’m trying to execute a slider down and away,” Turner said. “It was middle, middle. So … “

The Mariners have long been challenged by the idea of scoring runs. In the last 10 years, they have finished in the top 10 in runs scored once. That was last season, when they pushed to the brink of a Wild-Card berth and entrance into the postseason for the first time since 2001.

Even by those standards, Seattle’s recent run-scoring doldrums have stood out. Cruz’s homer made Thursday the first time in a week that the Mariners had scored more than a run in a game. It also puffed up Gonzalez’s line to one more reflective of his day: 5 ⅓ innings, two earned runs, four walks.

The result was yet another ding for the Nationals bullpen. Baker said this week that he would use Turner in various spots depending on the score. He came in during the game’s most crucial point Thursday and started the Mariners’ reboot with a slider that spun in the middle of the plate.

Turner was followed by Matt Grace, then deposed closer Blake Treinen, Matt Albers and Oliver Perez. Washington’s brief run of three consecutive starting pitchers — Stephen Strasburg, Joe Ross and Tanner Roark — going at least into the eighth inning ended. Gonzalez’s April success has also evaporated.

His 1.62 April ERA has been supplanted by a 4.40 ERA in May. He has struck out 28 and walked 21 so far in the season’s second month. Gonzalez’s start to the season made his desperate hope of making the All-Star Game in his hometown of Miami in July appear possible. May has rendered that dream defunct.

The usually bubbly Gonzalez was quiet afterward. He was not pleased with the timing of his removal from the game. He also had some math on his side to buoy his disgruntled state. After going 0-for-2 to start the game, Cruz was 1-for-15 career against Gonzalez. The two previously tussled often when Gonzalez was in Oakland and Cruz was in Texas.

Baker was concerned those numbers were about to level in an inning that Gonzalez had allowed two hits to the first three batters. Gonzalez twice pointed out that the first batter, Segura, swung at the first pitch, which produced a hit. After a strikeout was the Cano single. Cruz loomed.

“That’s a learning curve I wish I could have back and understand what just happened,” Gonzalez said. “Then again, it wasn’t an easy task on Dusty’s part. I put him in a situation that was tough.”

Baker was on a plane Thursday night to San Francisco. His son, Darren, graduates from high school Saturday. Bench coach Chris Speier will manage the weekend’s three-game series against the San Diego Padres in Baker’s stead. Baker will rejoin the team Monday in San Francisco.

On his flight across the country, Baker will have time to think about Gonzalez and why the Nationals bullpen keeps allowing home runs. He can replay his decision to pick Turner instead of leaving Gonzalez on the mound or spinning through his Rolodex of relievers for another choice. What he can’t do is change the result. The bullpen blew it. Again.

• Todd Dybas can be reached at tdybas@washingtontimes.com.

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