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Gonzalez wins 20th as Nats trounce Brewers

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Gonzalez wins 20th as Nats trounce Brewers

Two winters ago, Miami personal trainer Sergio Pacheco handed client Gio Gonzalez a folder. Inside was a detailed conditioning plan, but what the young left-hander remembers more was what was written on the outside.

It read: "Project 20." The goal: Turn Gonzalez into a 20-game winner in the big leagues.

"I sit back and I laugh about it, but that's every day, when I worked out with him, it was ... something we wanted to strive for. In a way, you kind of smile about it, because we finally reached our goal, and now it's time to change it up and continue to try and get better goals and higher goals."

Gonzalez will have to set a greater standard for himself in 2013, because he'll forever be etched into the 2012 record book as the majors' first 20-game winner after a dominating performance Saturday during the Nationals' 10-4 victory over the Brewers.

On a pitching staff that boasts the most-hyped young arm in a generation, a young right-hander who owned the league's best ERA earlier this summer, a World Series champion and author of a no-hitter and another guy who was the sixth overall pick in the draft five years ago, it was Gonzalez who was first to 20 wins.

And that was treated in the Nationals clubhouse as one of the most significant accomplishments of the year.

"Oh, it's always huge," manager Davey Johnson said. "Pitching is the main thing in baseball, and when you can win 20, that's the mark of Cy Young. It's just everything. It's bigger than a hitter, for me, hitting .300. He's had just a phenomenal year."

And the kind of year baseball fans in Washington haven't seen in a long time. A really long time.

Not only is Gonzalez D.C.'s first 20-game winner since 1953, when Bob Porterfield went 22-10 for the Senators. He's also the city's first pitcher to record 200 strikeouts since 1916, when the incomparable Walter Johnson whiffed 228 batters over an astounding 369 23 innings.

All this from a 27-year-old lefty who enjoyed success the previous two years in Oakland but was mostly unknown around Washington when general manager Mike Rizzo surprisingly traded away four top prospects to acquire him in December, then signed him to a five-year extension.

"I knew Mike Rizzo, I knew that for him to give up what we gave up, I knew he was special," Johnson said. "His personality. His competitiveness. He has fun."

Gonzalez is among the most popular players in the Nationals clubhouse, his effervescent smile and boundless energy keeping teammates loose day in and day out. And they heaped praise upon the lefty following this game, whether dumping a bucket of Gatorade on him as he conducted a television interview or hanging about a dozen 20 bills in his locker.

"He obviously has a great personality," third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. "I think that's kind of the way this whole team is, though. He fit in perfectly with all of us."

Great personality or not, what impresses teammates most about Gonzalez is his arsenal of pitches, from a 95 mph fastball to a 78 mph curveball that induces some of the ugliest swings you'll ever see from big-league hitters.

"I've faced guys like him where it's just easy, effortless fuel coming out of his hand," first baseman Adam LaRoche said. "And then that curveball that he's got obviously has some serious depth to it. And then he can throw a changeup on top of it. So he's got all the pitches."

When he's not blowing away opposing hitters, Gonzalez is leaving his teammates in hysterics. While attempting to throw a pitch to Martin Maldonado during the top of the seventh on Sunday, he caught a spike in the mound and wound up falling face-first onto the grass. As he lie there for a few seconds, a hush came over the sellout crowd of 40,493.

Johnson, pitching coach Steve McCatty, a trainer and Nationals infielders arrived on the scene and asked Gonzalez if he was hurt.

"Absolutely," he told them. "My pride is."

Gonzalez proceeded to strike out Maldonado on his very next pitch, then snagged a comebacker from Jean Segura to end the inning and his afternoon on a light note.

At that point, the Nationals held a commanding, 10-2 lead, thanks to a six-run explosion in the bottom of the fourth against former teammate Livan Hernandez. Zimmerman and Ian Desmond each clubbed three-run homers off their long-time pal. LaRoche later added a solo shot, his 32nd of the season to match a career high.

Put that all together, and the Nationals were able to enjoy a rare laugher, one that allowed them to lower their magic number for the NL East crown to 6 with 11 days left in the regular season.

That also allowed them to focus their attention on the biggest individual performance of the day, one authored by a popular left-hander who two winters ago made it his mission to win 20 games and on Sunday basked in the glory of achieving his goal.

"This is like a dream," Gonzalez said. "And I feel like I'm still sleeping in it."

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Breaking down Bryce Harper's early years of stardom with the Nationals

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USA TODAY Sports

Breaking down Bryce Harper's early years of stardom with the Nationals

We’ve written plenty of times about the potential end of Bryce Harper’s Nationals career. We’ve examined what were maybe his final days at Nationals Park, started discussing where he might end up, and taken a look at the journey that brought us to this point.

Over the course of a few posts, we’re going to take a deeper look at some of the highlights of the last half-decade in Nats history through the lens of Harper. We’ll be breaking this up into a three-act series, but who knows? If he ends up re-signing in D.C., we may end up looking back on 2012-18 altogether as just the first act of a storied career in the nation’s capital.

Whether or not he comes back to Washington, it’s clear that we’re entering a new era in both D.C. baseball and Harper’s career, so it’s a natural point to take a step at and review where we’ve come from so far.

Act I (2012-2014)

Really, the story of Bryce Harper dates back to 2010, the year in which he was drafted (or possibly back to 2009, the year of his notorious Sports Illustrated cover story). 2010 was a year of endless excitement and optimism for the future of Nationals baseball, with the franchise enjoying the second of their back-to-back top overall draft picks.

In just about the most fortunate setup in draft history, Washington’s first two No. 1 picks came in 2009 and 2010, which happens to be the two draft classes headlined by the most hyped prospects entering the league in recent memory. 2009 brought the future ace in Stephen Strasburg, and 2010 brought the future face of the sport in Harper.

The Debut

After continuing his rise to fame through the minors, Harper finally made his big-league debut in April of 2012 at the tender age of 19. The recent success of Juan Soto may lead some fans to believe it’s normal for uber prospects to reach the majors this quickly, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. Most prospects are still in college or the lower levels of a team’s farm system at the age of 19, but Harper wasn’t most prospects.

Based purely on the crazy hype surrounding Harper, it’d be tough to exclude his Major League debut -- the Nats played the Los Angeles Dodgers on April 28, 2012 -- among the early highlights of his career. He showed off a lot of the skills we’d see over the next six years. There was his rocket arm, his flair for the dramatic, his pure strength and his steely demeanor in the face of overwhelming pressure.

What made his debut game even more special was that Strasburg was starting for the Nats. The team lost to the Dodgers in extra innings, but in one glorious evening, fans could see the future taking place right before their eyes.

The All-Star

The next major milestone for Harper was making the All-Star Game, which he did somewhat controversially in that magical 2012 season. Harper became the third teenage All-Star ever, and the first one to do so as a position player.

He entered the game as a reserve, and in two at-bats, walked and struck out. He had very little impact on the game itself but was still one of the biggest stories at an event made for baseball’s biggest stars.

The Playoffs

There were other highlights during his rookie season, of course, as the team experienced its first success since returning to Washington. The Nats won 98 games that year to take the NL East, and Harper was helping lead the charge. The NLDS that year pitted the Nats against the 88-win St. Louis Cardinals, and the back-and-forth series went the full five games.

Harper notably struggled during his first exposure to October baseball, hitting just 3-for-23. He struck out eight times, which the most between both teams. The highlight, however, was a Game 5 home run off Adam Wainwright. Harper had already tripled in the Nats’ three-run first inning, and he led off the third with a solo blast to extend the lead to 4-0. At the time, it felt like the team’s youngest superstar cemented a franchise-altering win.

This is the part where Nats fans yell at me for reminding them of what came next.

Drew Storen fell apart in the ninth inning, the Cardinals completed the comeback victory, and the Nats were eliminated from the playoffs. Harper did get an at-bat in the 9th inning and struck out swinging. Say what you want, but he wasn’t going to go down without a fight.

The Recognition

Harper deservedly won the National League Rookie of the Year that season, and looking back, it’s hard to believe it wasn’t that close to unanimous (his stiffest competition came from Wade Miley and Todd Frazier). His 5.2 WAR and 57 extra-base hits both represented modern era records for a teenage hitter, and Harper even found himself getting down-ballot MVP votes (he finished 30th).

It was a historic season, and Harper has the accolades to show for it. The future was bright.

The Follow Up

Bryce Harper’s 2013 season didn’t go as well as 2012 for a litany of reasons. The team surrounding him was worse, failing to follow up 2012 with another postseason run. He struggled with injuries, including missing time after crashing into an outfield wall that May. It was a signature aggressive Harper play, going all-out in an attempt to help the team, but ended up being costly. He only ended up playing in 118 games and hitting 20 home runs. He was still an All-Star, but that was partially aided by his fame and stature.

That said, he kicked off the 2013 in incredible fashion, and that Opening Day stands out as his clearest highlight from the entire season. Harper didn’t just become the fourth-youngest player to ever homer on Opening Day (trailing names like Ken Griffey, Jr. and Robin Yount), but he ended up hitting home runs in his first two plate appearances. He was the first player to do so in franchise history and did it at the prodigious age of 20.

His powerful start to the year sent fans into a frenzy, and he gave them a curtain call four innings into the new season. The success wouldn’t last throughout the summer, but it was a wild start and is one of the lasting highlights from the early years of Harper’s career.

The Postseason Return

The 2014 regular season would be a forgettable one for Harper. Thanks to a thumb injury he suffered running the bases, Harper set a career-low in games played with exactly 100. The time missed contributed to a third straight season with fewer home runs than the last, but his rate stats suffered as well. He had the lowest slugging percentage and OPS of his career, and it remains the only season in which he wasn’t named to the National League All-Star team.

For his regular season struggles, however, Harper experienced much more success in his second postseason. The Nats bounced back from a down 2013 team, beating up on a weak division and winning 96 games to lead the National League. They ended up facing another inferior NLDS opponent in the San Francisco Giants, and the end result was the same as in 2012.

The Giants may have won the series thanks to a dominant performance by their pitching staff (the Nats batted .164 as a team), but Harper held his own this time around. In what still stands out to this day as his strongest postseason performance, Harper had a slash line of .294/.368/.882, buoyed by his three home runs in four games. The 1.251 OPS represents by far a career-high, and his three home runs were 75 percent of the team’s total in the series.

He went 0-for-7 in the 18-inning Game 2 marathon, but essentially was the entire Washington offense in Games 1, 3 and 4. He even launched a ball into the third deck at Nats Park in Game 1. It was a titanic blast that won’t soon be forgotten.

The clear highlight, however, came in Game 4. The Nats fell behind 2-0 early, but Harper got them on the board with a fifth-inning double. Trailing 2-1, he came to bat in the seventh and blasted his third home run of the series to tie the game. The Nats were eight outs from elimination, and Harper had saved them.

Of course, once again, the bullpen would go on to lose the game for the Nats and end their season. Harper again had a chance in a do-or-die 9th inning, and this time, the Giants learned their lesson and walked him. His team lost, but the legend of Bryce Harper was cemented.

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Ex-Oriole Manny Machado homers off ex-National Gio Gonzalez in NLCS Game 1

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USA Today Sports

Ex-Oriole Manny Machado homers off ex-National Gio Gonzalez in NLCS Game 1

Sure, the Nationals and Orioles didn't make the playoffs, but that didn't stop a "Battle of the Beltways" moment from breaking out during NLCS Game 1.

Ex-National Gio Gonzalez started the game for the Brewers. In the second inning, ex-Oriole Manny Machado stepped to the plate for the Dodgers.

Here's what happened next:

If you squint, you can imagine the ball flying into the Nationals Park bullpen or the Camden Yards bleachers. 

And in case you're wondering, we have indeed entered the Twilight Zone. 

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