While Gio Gonzalez’ return to the Washington Nationals didn’t end with as dominant a performance as most would have hoped, rest assured that his struggles had everything to do with stamina and fatigue, and nothing to do with an injured shoulder.
In his two outings prior to landing on the DL, things went downhill in a hurry for Gonzalez. Against the Oakland Athletics, he gave up seven runs in the first two innings before getting the hook after the third. Six days later against the New York Mets, he lasted 4.1 innings, but surrendered three runs in the first and two runs in the third.
After spending time on the DL, Gonzalez then headed for Potomac for rehab starts on June 6 and June 12. In those two starts, it became clear that stamina and fatigue were more of a concern than the state of his injured shoulder.
Through the first two innings of rehab start number one, Gonzalez needed just 19 pitches and gave up one base runner. In the third inning, he allowed a leadoff hit and faced 10 total batters in an inning that needed 25 pitches to complete.
The fourth inning wasn’t much better. In fact, he wasn’t able to complete the inning and was pulled at the 65-pitch mark. To make matters worse, the damage during the inning was done with two outs. After surrendering four four-pitch walks, back-to-back RBI doubles ended the outing.
In 3.2 innings, he gave up seven hits, eight earned runs, four walks and two strikeouts. He limped to the 65-pitch limit set for him and was pulled immediately.
Following the game, Gonzalez blamed fatigue for his struggles in the third inning. He said his shoulder felt fine, but that the third and fourth innings were nothing more than fatigue effecting his ability to pitch. Hoping to build up stamina before rejoining the team, he was then given a second rehab start that saw better results.
On June 12, Gonzalez took the mound again for Potomac. After needing 33 pitches to get through the first two innings and only allowing two base runners to reach on walks, the third inning proved to be the most eventful, but Gonzalez managed the threat far better than June 6.
He needed 28 pitches and faced six total batters in the third frame. With two outs and a man on first, Gonzalez gave up his second walk of the inning, fourth of the day, and followed that by giving up an RBI single on a 2-2 pitch. Only then did he pick up the final out of the inning.
After striking out three around a single in the middle of the inning, Gonzalez was seated after four innings and allowed two hits and one earned run while striking out seven and throwing 79 pitches.
Following his second rehab start, Gonzalez emphatically told reporters that he’s ready to return to the team and be inserted into the rotation. He was quite pleased with his outing and said that his four walks were due to him working on pitches. After declaring himself ready, Gonzalez rejoined the team.
In his first start back, Gonzalez needed 42 pitches to get through the first three frames in which he gave up two walks and a double, all in the lead-off spot in the inning. He labored through 19 pitches in the third, but still came out unscathed.
The fourth inning appeared to be the breaking point for Gonzalez. He faced eight batters, gave up three hits, allowed the first two men on via a walk and hit-by-pitch, and gave up four runs. All in all, he needed 34 pitches to get through the frame. Each of the first three Astros that came to the plate reached, but all on a two-strike pitch.
If you’re looking for an explanation for his struggles, you can likely rule out that his shoulder is still bothering him. If it were, we’d likely see him fall apart much sooner, like he was in his last two starts prior to his stint on the DL. If anything, his struggles stem from fatigue and not having his arm completely up to speed.
Gonzalez’ first rehab start saw him struggle mightily in the third inning. His second start saw him struggle, but not nearly has bad as the first. In his first start since May 17 with the Nationals, it was the fourth inning that proved to be the breaking point.
Each time out, he went further and further without a problem. In his first rehab start, his breaking point came between 20-30 pitches. His second rehab start saw things start to fall apart after 40 pitches. On Wednesday night, it wasn’t until between 50-60 pitches that things began to spiral out of control.
When it comes to Gonzalez and his return to the Nationals, patience is most certainly a virtue. While it would have been nice to see him throw seven shutout innings and strike out 10, that would have been asking too much. Rather, the fact that he made it to the fourth inning as strong as he did should be encouraging.
Should we continue to see Gonzalez struggle in the third and fourth innings, then there’s cause for concern. However, the recent trend over his last three starts (rehab included) would say that that won’t be the case. Next time out, don’t be surprised to see Gonzalez pitch stronger, and longer, simply because the strength and stamina in his arm will have been built up that much more.
Brian Skinnell is a sports writer born and raised in the Washington, D.C.-metro area. He’s had work published on Yahoo Sports and Rant Sports, and has made several radio show appearances across the country to discuss his works. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook, and Google+!