Gio Gonzalez doesn't temper the fact that he still gets an emotional buzz from a punch-out. Rhetorically speaking, of course.
But it's probably not coincidence that as Gonzalez's strikeout totals have diminished slightly this season, the 24-year-old A's left-hander has started to find more consistent success in what's starting to look like his breakout season as an effective major league starter.
It's not even the end of May and Gonzalez is already just one win shy of matching his entire victory total for 2009. He's 5-3 with a 3.46 ERA, he's thrown at least 95 pitches in all nine of his starts, and he's coming off his best and longest outing in the big leagues — eight innings of shutout ball against the Giants on Saturday in which he retired the last 20 batters he faced.
Generally, when Gonzalez is that sharp he amasses high strikeout totals, but he struck out just five in the 1-0 victory, a development that is not lost on him.
"I miss the strikeouts," he said. "I miss them a lot. But if I can go eight or nine innings and save some of the bullpen's arms, why not?"
This is the lesson the A's have been trying to impress on Gonzalez since they acquired him from the Chicago White Sox on Jan. 3, 2008, in a deal for Nick Swisher. He always has received high marks for his raw ability, but learning to harness that ability has been a work in progress. In a number of starts during his first two seasons with Oakland, he has allowed his emotions and excitability to get the best of him, even on days when he was pitching well and piling up strikeouts.
To his detriment, his lust for the K added to his pitch counts and walk totals. Moreover, in trying to overpower hitters, he occasionally would fall out of rhythm and lose his grip on a game entirely.
"I'm not going to lie to you, my whole career, I've been a high-strikeout guy," he said. "So it's been a challenge learning to adjust and letting the hitters get themselves out and not try to strike out the world. Now, I want to stay in that zone where I can get one-pitch outs as often as I can. The idea is to go 7-8 innings, which is what All-Stars are supposed to do. You want to keep the game in your hands as long as you can."
Gonzalez said he has learned much from watching and conversing with Dallas Braden, himself a pitcher who when he first came up to the A's would let his emotions get the best of him on the mound. Gonzalez said Braden constantly is in his ear during bullpen sessions and in between innings of games, trying to sustain the cool focus Braden obviously has mastered to a significant degree.
"Yeah, I see them talking a lot," said manager Bob Geren. "It's great, because the words of encouragement are coming from a guy who's been there. Coaches can only do so much to impress on a guy how he's supposed to handle himself on the mound. When advice comes from someone who's getting the results, it can have even more impact."
Still decidedly high-energy off the field — it's part of what makes him such an engaging and likable guy — Gonzalez likes to spread credit around. Give him enough time and he'll praise the groundskeeper for keeping the grass at just the right height on the infield.
Interestingly, the person he said helps keep him grounded when he's on the field is rookie Tyson Ross, who has a decidedly unemotional, workmanlike approach despite his lack of pro experience.
"I remember when I was his age, it was more an emotional thing for me," Gonzalez said. "I was excited, I wanted to strike out the world, and when you see a guy like Tyson, who just takes the ball and does his job, it makes you think about how important keeping your composure can be."
Along with a fresh mental and emotional approach, Gonzalez also is expanding his arsenal. He has worked hard to develop an effective changeup since the beginning of spring, and while it's not on par with Braden's just yet, he understands the magic of the pitch and is showing it as often as he can in games.
"I use it just to let the hitters know I have an extra pitch in my back pocket," he said. "It's well known now that I'm not just a two-pitch pitcher (fastball and curve). I want to be a three-pitch pitcher. I want to continue showing that I have a good changeup, and it's working to good effect. If they're making contact for an out, I'll take it. The less pitches I have to make, the better for me."
Note: Brett Anderson threw three innings in a rehab start for Triple-A Sacramento. He gave up two runs on six hits with one walk and one strikeout in 57 pitches.
A's (Dallas Braden 4-2) at Orioles (Jeremy Guthrie 2-4), 4:05 p.m. TV: CSNCA. Radio: 860-AM; 1640-AM