WASHINGTON — Over the course of his managerial career, Dusty Baker’s taken a lot of heat for taxing the arms of his starting pitchers. The Washington Nationals rotation doesn’t seem to mind it one bit.
In Tuesday’s 4-3 loss to the Chicago Cubs, Baker could’ve easily pulled starter Gio Gonzalez after six innings. After all, Gonzalez was already over 100 pitches, had allowed eight baserunners, and his team was trailing 3-1. Instead, Baker ran his lefty hurler back out there.
Even though he only faced two more batters before exiting with one out in the top of the seventh, and even though his final pitch count (111) is the stuff that raised eyebrows are made of in this day and age of mega-contracts, five-man rotations and specialized bullpens, it was clear after the game that Gonzalez wouldn’t have had it any other way.
“It means a lot when the skip is going out there saying, ‘Hey you got over 106 pitches, you’re gonna go out there for the seventh,'” said the 30-year old southpaw. For the record, he was actually at 104 pitches through six innings, but potato potahto. “I mean, that says a lot.”
What it says is that, ulnar collateral ligaments be damned, Baker’s not about to baby his starters. A year after ranking 12th in the majors with 93.6 pitches per outing under former manager Matt Williams, Nats starters are averaging 100.7 pitches, most in baseball, with Baker at the helm. Four-fifths of the rotation is over 100 pitches per start, including Tommy John survivor Stephen Strasburg, who was famously shut down for the 2012 playoffs and who’s been treated with kid gloves for most of his career — until now. After averaging 89 pitches per start last season, Strasburg is at 103 this season, the heftiest hike on the Nats. The only one who’s under the century mark — 22-year old Joe Ross, who was powered off after hitting the rookie wall late last season — has seen his workload increase from 85 to 94 pitches per start.
As for Gonzalez, he’s averaging 100 on the nose, up from 95 last season. After working into the seventh inning just 10 times in 31 starts a year ago, he’s already done it six times in 13 outings this season. Despite the potential for long-term wear-and-tear, he couldn’t be happier.
“As a pitcher, that’s only building confidence. The communication is key and I love that,” said Gonzalez after Tuesday’s outing. As he spoke, a seemingly genuine smile flashed across his face, indicating that, unlike a lot of the shallow postgame rhetoric that often spews forth from big-league clubhouses, he actually meant what he was saying. For what it’s worth, the rest of the rotation also seems to be on board with Baker’s let-it-ride rationale. “We’re just all on the same page with what’s going on.”
What’s going on is that Baker’s giving his guys so much rope, you’d think they were herders instead of hurlers.
“It’s like that kid that climbs up in the tree,” said Washington’s skipper earlier this season. “If you send the fire department out to take him down from that tree, he’ll never learn how to get out of the tree. If you rescue ’em every time that they’re in trouble, then they’ll never know how to get out of trouble on their own.”