It was as perfect a day at the ballpark as any baseball fan could have asked for. On a gorgeous, sunny fall afternoon, the Nationals offense was peppering balls all around the yard while Gio Gonzalez methodically shut down a potent lineup on his way to an historic 20th victory in front of a packed house. And then, suddenly, time stood still as the entire fan base, both present and at home, held its collective breath, watching their ace tumble off the mound, lying motionless for a second, face first on the grass.
As it turned out, Gonzalez had just caught his cleat and stumbled, not actually hurt himself. He remained on the ground for the extra beat simply out of embarrassment, but obviously took the events in stride, as whatever he said behind his mitt as the infield, coaches and trainers gathered on the mound caused Ryan Zimmerman and Adam LaRoche to break out in laughter. He then doffed his cap to the crowd, bringing an uproarious reaction, then stepped back on the mound and threw a hard breaking ball, inducing a check-swing third strike from Martin Maldonado.
It was a moment befitting Gio’s personality, his wide smile and gregarious nature often at odds with his devastating arsenal of power pitches and fierce competitiveness. By the end of the day, he had the crowd chanting “GI-O,” over his post-game interview, as he gave his thoughts on becoming the first Major Leaguer to win 20 games this season.
His accomplishment was more impressive than just that, though. He became just the second left-hander in D.C. baseball history to win 20, and the first since Earl Whitehill in 1933. When he blew a 95 mile-per-hour, letter-high fastball past Jean Segura in the top of the fifth, he became the first District hurler to fan more than 200 batters in a season since the legendary Walter Johnson in 1916, 96 years ago. With top-five rankings in the National League in wins (20, first), ERA (2.84, tied-fourth), strikeouts (201, fourth), and opponents batting average (.204, first), he has positioned himself as a top contender for the National League Cy Young award.
Meanwhile, the offense showed up in a big way, as Zimmerman, LaRoche and Ian Desmond all went deep in the 10-4 rout. LaRoche’s blast in the sixth capped the scoring for the day and also matched his career high as his 32nd longball of the season. But his blast broke another record, largely overlooked in the moment. It gave the Nationals 179 home runs for the season, breaking the all-time Expos/Nationals franchise record set back in 2000, making this the most powerful team in club history with 11 games still to play.
With the victory, the Nationals also continued to add to their most impressive team statistic of this remarkable rise. Following the 2009 season in which they went just 59-103, the Nats won 69 games, an improvement of 10 wins in ’10. Last season, Washington won 80 games, giving them 11 more wins in 2011 than the year prior. And with their 92nd win of the 2012 season yesterday, they have added 12 wins and counting in 2012, a stunning march from the bottom of the pack to the top, where they currently sit with the best record in the Major Leagues.
They owe much of that success this season to both Gonzalez and LaRoche, so it was only fitting that the two of them delivered the record-setting strikeout, win and home run.