Struggling Gio Gonzalez searching for curveball

By Andrew Simon

WASHINGTON — A bumpy season got bumpier for Nationals left-hander Gio Gonzalez on Saturday.

Although Washington rallied late to beat Pittsburgh, 4-3, Gonzalez lasted only five innings and surrendered three runs on seven hits. It was his his fourth straight non-quality start and the fourth time in his last six outings that he failed to pitch into the sixth inning.

Yet a little over a month ago, Gonzalez was rolling, with a streak of three straight scoreless starts. Here’s a look at that period, compared with Gonzalez’s recent struggles:

June 23-July 5

  • 3 starts, 21 IP, 9 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 7 BB, 19 K, 0 HR, 15.3 pitches/IP. Opponents hit .132/.213/.147

July 31-Aug. 16

  • 4 starts, 19.1 IP, 27 H, 14 R, 14 ER, 9 BB, 23 K, 1 HR, 19.6 pitches/IP. Opponents hit .321/.387/.417

So how did Gonzalez go from one to the other?

Before and after Saturday’s game, manager Matt Williams identified curveball command as a key for Gonzalez. If he can throw it for strikes and work ahead in counts, he can keep hitters guessing. And if not?

“If he doesn’t have it, the other team can just eliminate it from their thought process and it makes it more difficult for him to get guys out,” Williams said.

During that scoreless stretch, Gonzalez threw his curve 20.8 percent of the time according to BrooksBaseball.net. He threw 31.3 percent of them for strikes, including 17.9 percent whiffs. But during his recent downturn, Gonzalez has been able to spin the curve only 11.6 percent of the time, with 15.9 percent strikes and 6.8 percent whiffs.

“It’s just trying to find a feel for it,” Gonzalez said after Saturday’s outing, in which he threw seven of his 11 curves for balls and got one swing and miss. “It’s one of those pitches, almost like the changeup where you’ve got to get that touch and feel in the back of your head, just ‘Oh, there it is.’ That’s the pitch you wanted. But so far, it lands for a strike and then it has no clue where it’s going.”

Williams said that Gonzalez, who earlier this season spent time on the disabled list with left shoulder inflammation, feels good and hasn’t complained of any pain. His fastball velocity hasn’t dipped. It will be up to Gonzalez and pitching coach Steve McCatty to refine the curve during the pitcher’s next bullpen session, searching for the right arm slot.

Of course, luck also factors into any good or bad stretch in baseball. And while Gonzalez clearly hasn’t been sharp, he did strike out seven on Saturday while walking only two. He gave up one extra-base hit, a Starling Marte RBI double that flew just inches over the outstretched glove of third baseman Anthony Rendon. The Pirates grounded a few singles through the left side of the infield, and also collected an infield hit.

During Gonzalez’s three straight scoreless starts, batters hit a very low .184 on balls in play while smacking line drives 20 percent of the time. In his last four starts, batters have hit a scalding .433 on balls in play, with 23 percent line drives.

While Gonzalez now sports a 4.00 ERA, compared with 2.89 in 2012 and 3.36 last year, his Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) of 3.17 sits in between the 2.82 and 3.41 of the past two seasons.

“Just tough breaks,” Gonzalez said Saturday. “I got ground balls that I wanted — they just found a hole. I got broken bats, and they found hits. So that’s just baseball. That’s how it’s going for me this year. You got to keep grinding, keep grinding.”

Follow Andrew Simon on Twitter @AndrewSimonMLB.

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