Gio brings more than just skills to Nats' table

Gio brings more than just skills to Nats' table

Gio brings more than just skills to Nats' table
LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- Gio Gonzalez is left-handed. And that's not necessarily a reference to the arm he throws with.

It's an accepted baseball truism that lefties tend to be a little more free-spirited, that they have a counter-clockwise way of looking at life. Anybody trying to disprove that theory probably shouldn't use the Nationals' prized offseason acquisition as an example.

Gonzalez made his Nationals debut Tuesday in a 5-2 win over the Braves at Champion Stadium. He pitched three scoreless innings, allowing one hit and one walk, showing off the biting curveball that's his main weapon. Afterward, he displayed the carefree personality that also sets him apart.

He said he doubted that he was really throwing 95 mph, as the scoreboard radar indicated, and was asked what his normal velocity is.

"I'm always at 105," he deadpanned.

He talked about wearing headphones while stretching before a start. He said he begins by listening to a lot of Motown -- The Temptations, Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye, Barry White -- and then gradually moves up to more modern stuff.

"Hip-hop," he said. "Stuff my parents wouldn't listen to. Specific song? I can't do that. I don't want kids nowadays listening to what I'm listening to."

Pitchers usually hang with pitchers, and hitters with hitters, but Gonzalez tries to make it a point to talk to everybody.

"I like to have fun. I'm always joking around with the guys, keeping it loose so when they go out there, they don't have a lot of pressure," he explained. "I try to keep everybody salsa-dancing loose. That's the best way I can put it."

Hey, he'll be here all week. And don't forget to tip the bartender.

Manager Davey Johnson said a woman was heckling Gonzalez during the game. "That's my mother," Gonzalez said when somebody in the dugout asked him about it.

Said Johnson: "He's a character."

At his introductory news conference in late January, the 26-year-old Gonzalez was asked what he could do to walk fewer batters this season.

"I'll have to get in good with the umpires," he quipped.

While he and his family were in town, they hit the tourist spots. At the Lincoln Memorial, he ran up the steps, imitating Rocky working out at the Philadelphia Art Museum.

"I'm a happy-go-lucky guy," he said at the time. "But when it comes down to it [on the field], I want to make sure you get exactly what you wanted."

The Nationals, who made a huge investment in Gonzalez, are counting on it. They not only traded four of their top 15 prospects (pitchers Tom Milone, Brad Peacock and A.J. Cole, and catcher Derek Norris) to Oakland to get him on Dec. 22, a month later they signed him to a five-year, $42 million contract with options that could potentially makes the deal worth $65 million through 2018.

"We were satisfied and convinced that this is the type of person and player we want on the mound for us and in the clubhouse," general manager Mike Rizzo said at the news conference. "We've done a lot of homework. We're convinced of the makeup. We're convinced of the character. We've scouted the player extensively. We're convinced of the skill set, and the talent level."

The talent was always there. The maturity wasn't. The A's still vividly remember the day in August 2008 that he walked into the clubhouse and, without having pitched an inning in the big leagues, plugged his iPod into the clubhouse dock. That's a no-no. They also remember how easily he'd get frustrated on the mound and how he'd let it get the better of him.

"I sat him down and explained what was going to happen if he kept this up ... and it wasn't going to be pretty. I had to give him some tough love and tell him to cool it for a while," Oakland left-hander Dallas Braden recently told the Washington Post. "He needs the excitement and the exuberance and the emotion on his sleeve. But at the same time, he has to walk a fine line."

It was only an early spring game Tuesday, but Gonzalez had an opportunity to demonstrate how much he's learned when Andrelton Simmons led off the bottom of the third for Atlanta with a grounder to shortstop that Ian Desmond couldn't handle. Gonzalez pointed at him with an "I've-got-your-back" gesture and calmly pitched out of the inning.

That's the poise that allowed him to go 16-12 with a 3.12 ERA for Oakland last year, and why he became such a hot commodity as soon as word got around that he was available this past winter.

Gonzalez had been traded before, but it was always as a prospect. "For big name guys that the other team needed," he said.

Now he's the big name guy the Nationals needed to help them compete in the National League East.

Paul Hagen is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.