July 31, 2017: Gio González's near-no-hitter at Miami
If Gio González (8-5, with a 2.81 ERA entering the game) had not pitched well for the visiting Washington Nationals in Miami on July 31, 2017, it would have been understandable. That day would have been his friend José Fernández’s twenty-fifth birthday. Fernández, the Miami Marlins former ace, died in a boating accident near the end of the 2016 season.1 Gio had just met Penelope, José’s infant daughter, when the Fernández family visited the Miami ballpark for the first time since his death.
In 2017 spring training, González told his manager Dusty Baker that his goal was to pitch in the All-Star Game, to be played in Miami.2 Although he had a good first half of the year (2.86 ERA at the All-Star break), he was not selected for the National League team. Being in a rotation with All-Stars Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg may have contributed to his being omitted. But here he was in Miami, pitching in front of as friendly a road crowd as the Nationals were likely to encounter all year. As usual, among the crowd of 18,962 were many of González’s friends and family--he was born and raised in Hialeah, Florida, about eight miles from the ballpark.
The Nationals were facing José Ureña (9-4, 4.04 ERA), who was making his first career start against the Nationals. Ureña’s Marlins were a distant second in the National League East, 13 games behind the Nationals. At 49-54, they were not looking like a postseason possibility.3
Matt Wieters was catching González. Wieters had signed on with the Nationals in February, displacing Derek Norris.4 During his interview with Nationals’ general manager Mike Rizzo, Wieters presented a plan to help the Nationals’ pitchers, especially González. Rizzo said “he was blown away by Wieters’ preparation,” and made Wieters an offer.5 Wieters’ planning seemed to have worked. Not only did González credit his success in 2017 to Wieters,6 the statistics back it up: his 2017 ERA was 2.96, a marked improvement over the 4.57 he posted in 2016.
In addition to the fans in Marlins Park, the audience included a group enjoying the Crab Feast on the Field at Nationals Park in Washington, watching the game broadcast via video board.7
The Nationals went quietly in the top of the first inning. In the bottom of the first, Giancarlo Stanton drew a walk. With Christian Yelich batting in a 2-2 count, Stanton broke for second. He barely got up to speed, didn’t slide, and was tagged out by shortstop Wilmer Difo almost 10 feet off second base. The announcers speculated that he’d lost track of the count, since he ran on the seventh pitch of the at-bat.
With González and Ureña solidly in control, not much happened offensively for either team. No National made it into scoring position through the fifth inning. Adam Lind singled with two outs in the second, Brian Goodwin reached on an error with two outs in the third, and Bryce Harper drew a leadoff walk in the fourth but went nowhere. That was it for Nationals baserunners until the sixth. Then, Goodwin doubled off the center-field wall, Difo bunted him to third, and Harper singled him in; it proved to be the only scoring in the game. Ryan Zimmerman grounded into a double play to end the Washington sixth. Miami shortstop Miguel Rojas started the play with a diving stop, throwing to second while almost face-down in the dirt.
Rolling along smoothly, González had walked former National Tyler Moore in the second, and then walked Yelich in the seventh—with no baserunners allowed between them. He was helped by a nice sliding catch in short center field by Goodwin that ended the second. For a moment, the Marlins looked as if they would challenge whether Goodwin caught or trapped the ball, but it was a clean catch, just off the ground.
The Nationals’ TV announcers started saying “same seats, everybody” at the end of the fifth inning. On the other hand, the Marlins’ TV announcers were not shy about saying “no-hitter” every few sentences starting in the sixth inning.
An unusual play occurred in the Marlins’ sixth. With no one on base and two outs, Dee Gordon swung at an 0-2 pitch, and missed. But he lost his grip on the bat, which ended up flying farther than the ball. The bat landed at González’s feet, the ball up the first base line. González picked up the bat while the play was still live. It looked for a second as if he was going to fling the bat towards the runner or first base. But Wieters grabbed the ball, and tagged out Gordon to end the inning. González recovered his composure and handed the bat back to Gordon.
Stanton led off the Miami seventh. His two plate appearances to that point in the game had resulted in a walk (and the caught stealing) and a pop fly. With 33 home runs, and a OPS of .9691, he was one of the major leagues’ most feared hitters. But González struck him out swinging at a nasty 0-2 curve that left him twisted like a pretzel. González then walked Yelich, but then induced two fielder’s choice groundballs to get out of the inning. He still hadn’t surrendered a hit.
With one out in the bottom of the Marlins’ eighth, Mike Avilés hit a sinking liner to right, which Harper appeared to lose in the lights. But he recovered, and caught the ball while landing on his backside. Then with two outs, González hit Miguel Rojas’ foot with a pitch. Wieters paid a quick visit to the mound to settle González before he faced Ichiro Suzuki as a pinch hitter for Ureña. Suzuki flied out to center; the no-hitter remained intact through eight.
Jarlin García, pitching in relief of Ureña, retired Difo, Harper, and Zimmerman in order in the Nationals’ ninth as the game went to the bottom of the inning at 1-0, Nationals.
Baker replaced Lind in left field with Andrew Stevenson for defense as the Marlins came up to bat.8 Eight and a half innings of suspense then broke when Dee Gordon, the leadoff hitter in the ninth, ended González’s no-hit bid with a clean single to center on a 1-1 pitch.
With González at 106 pitches, Baker summoned newly-acquired closer Sean Doolittle.9 González departed to a standing ovation from the Miami crowd, doffing his cap as he walked back to the dugout. Even Stanton, standing in the on-deck circle, was applauding, along with the rest of the Marlins. González got hugs, as well as high-fives, from his teammates. Everyone knew what the game, and the day, meant to him.
But there was still a game to finish—bottom of the ninth, one on, no outs, home team down by a run. Doolittle was up to the task. He got Stanton to hit into a double play, then yielded a single to Yelich before retiring Marcell Ozuna, all on nine pitches, to preserve González’ ninth win. Adrián Sánchez, the Nationals rookie making his first start at third base, started the crucial twin-killing.10
In his post-game interview González credited his performance to Wieters’ game calling and preparation and the defense behind him; he downplayed his own effort or ability. González was emotional in the interview, choking back tears as he talked about the day, Fernández and his family, and the impending birth of the González’s second child.11
Two weeks after he missed the 2017 All-Star Game in Miami, Gio González had given a memorable performance there.
MLB.TV recordings and 106.7 FM, Washington, D.C., radio recording.
Going Deep With the Nats blog, talknats.com/2017/07/31/gio-game-career-8-0-innings-1-hitter-nats-win-1-0/
1 Cindy Boren and Barry Syrluga, “Marlins ace Jose Fernandez killed in Miami boating accident,” Washington Post, September 25, 2016. washingtonpost.com/news/early-lead/wp/2016/09/25/marlins-jose-fernandez-killed-in-miami-boating-accident/?utm_term=.95dc217c249c.
2 Jorge Castillo, “Making the all-star team is at the top of Gio Gonzalez’s to-do-list,” Washington Post, March 10, 2017. washingtonpost.com/news/nationals-journal/wp/2017/03/10/making-the-all-star-team-is-at-the-top-of-gio-gonzalezs-to-do-list/?utm_term=.f615942e9551.
3 Jordan Katz, “Opposite dugout: Marlins sellers at the deadline, giving up on 2017,” masnsports.com/nationals-buzz/2017/07/opposite-dugout-marlins-sellers-at-the-deadline-giving-up-on-2017.html.
4 Washington had acquired Norris in a trade with the San Diego Padres on December 2, 2016, then released him late in 2017 spring training after signing Wieters.
5 Chelsea Janes, “Matt Wieters’s production at the plate has sagged, but his presence is felt strongly behind it,” Washington Post, September 27, 2017.washingtonpost.com/news/nationals-journal/wp/2017/09/27/matt-wieterss-production-at-the-plate-has-sagged-but-his-presence-is-felt-strongly-behind-it/?utm_term=.aa13012952e1. ; “Gio Gonzales: Cy Young contender,” thenatsblog.com/2017/08/gio-gonzalez-cy-young-contender/.
6 “Gio Gonzalez Doesn’t Want to Talk About How Good He Is,” theringer.com/mlb/2017/8/31/16230224/gio-gonzalez-best-pitcher-washington-nationals-max-scherzer.
8 This was not a bad idea. In the next series against Miami, Stevenson made a game-saving catch. nbcsports.com/washington/washington-nationals/andrew-stevenson-makes-game-saving-catch-help-nationals-beat-marlins.
9 The Nationals had acquired Doolittle from the Oakland A’s on July 16.
10 The Marlins’ TV broadcasters noted that it was Sánchez’ first start at third.
11 “2017 Signature Moments: #3 – ‘Bigger Than Baseball,’”curlyw.mlblogs.com/2017-signature-moments-3-bigger-than-baseball-3fc6d9965afa.