Gio Gonzalez is the No. 3 starter for the Washington Nationals but would probably be a top-of-the-rotation pitcher for a less-talented team.
That was evident from a standout 2017 season in which Gonzalez went 15-9 with a 2.96 ERA — a major upgrade from 2016 when he was 11-11 with a 4.57 ERA. He finished sixth in the National League Cy Young Award voting during his best season since he was 21-8 with a 2.89 ERA during his first year with Washington in 2012.
With Gonzalez working 201 innings and consistently pitching well alongside repeat Cy Young winner Max Scherzer and the oft-dominating Stephen Strasburg, it’s no surprise the Nationals won 97 games and a second successive National League East title.
Gonzalez makes his 2018 debut Sunday as Washington goes for a sweep of its three-game, season-opening series of the Cincinnati Reds at Great American Ball Park.
The Nationals are eager to learn if the 32-year-old Gonzalez can match his 2017 success as he ages and loses a bit off his pitches.
The left-handed Gonzalez will be matched on what should be a chilly afternoon — the predicted high is 40 — against another of the Reds’ unproven young starters, Sal Romano, a 24-year-old right-hander who flashed considerable potential at the end of last season.
The Nationals won the season opener 2-0 on Friday behind the strong work of starter Max Scherzer and three relievers, then put up 14 hits during a 13-7 rout Saturday.
Adam Eaton went 5-for-5 with four runs scored and three RBIs on Saturday and Matt Adams hit a 460-foot, three-run homer in the first inning off Reds starter Luis Castillo (0-1). Brian Goodwin added a grand slam in the ninth.
“I want to get these guys involved, get them engaged,” new Nationals manager Dave Martinez said of giving spot starts to Adams and Goodwin, who combined for seven RBIs. “They’re a big part of what we need to be successful.”
Strasburg wasn’t his sharpest despite improving to 4-1 in his career against the Reds, allowing eight hits and three runs (one earned) in 6 1/3 innings. But Washington opened a 6-1 lead by the fifth, then added seven runs in the final three innings.
“We got ourselves back in the game against one of the premier starters in the National League,” Reds manager Bryan Price said. “We showed a lot of spirit and effort and fought our way back.”
Gonzalez sharpened up for the season by pitching three scoreless innings in his final spring start Tuesday against the Minnesota Twins at Nationals Park.
“I felt fine going after hitters,” said Gonzalez, who clearly seems comfortable throwing to newly acquired Nationals catcher Miguel Montero, who came to camp as a non-roster player.
Gonzalez is going after batters differently than he did early in his career, relying much more now on his curveball and his change-up. His fastball has dropped in velocity from around 94 mph to 90 mph during his seven Nationals seasons.
But it was an effective mix a season ago, when opposing hitters batted only .175 against Gonzalez with runners in scoring position.
Romano was only a 23rd-round draft pick in 2011, but his fastball was rated as the best in the Cincinnati organization as he went 3-3 with a 3.17 ERA in his final eight starts last year. He ended 5-8 with a 4.45 ERA in 16 overall starts during his first major league season, striking out 73 but giving up 91 hits in 87 innings.
At 6 feet 5 and 270 pounds, Romano is one of the major leagues’ largest starters.
“He pitched with great confidence all spring and, for me, it was his job to lose,” Price said. “And he didn’t lose it.”