WOODBRIDGE, Virginia — It’s a utopian Friday evening in the suburbs just south down Interstate 95 from the nation’s capital, the high temperature in the low 80s with almost no humidity in the air, tapering off toward sunset without the faintest hint of a cloud in the azure sky.
In short, it’s a beautiful day for baseball. Just not the type of baseball game Gio Gonzalez is used to pitching.
Over his seven-year major league career, the left-handed hurler has been unusually healthy. Ever since becoming a full-time starting pitcher in 2010, he has made no fewer than 32 starts per season, a full slate in today’s game.
But he has found himself on the disabled list for the first time, and is set to make a rehabilitation start at Class A Potomac, the closest geographical minor league affiliate in the Washington Nationals’ system to the parent club. It is the first rehab start in his career, and his first time pitching in the minors since 2009.
There’s no room in the press box at cozy Pfitzner Stadium (“The Pfitz”), capacity 6,000, for anyone more than the broadcasters, public address announcer, media relations staff and official scorer. Of course, there often isn’t any outside press at a low-level minor league game. The media members in attendance — all here to see Gonzalez — sit in the last row of the reserved seats, backs against the Potomac Nationals banner that stretches the length of the box.
After the standard pregame rituals, including a slightly off-key National Anthem from a local children’s choir, Gonzalez is announced as the pitcher over the Pfitz’s PA system, a collection of eight speakers tied atop the netting behind home plate.
On his second pitch of the game, Gonzalez runs a fastball inside on Raul Mondesi – – son of the former big leaguer of the same name — of the visiting Wilmington Blue Rocks. Mondesi swings, the delivery catching the bat high up the handle and splitting it into two large shards and a handful of splinters as the ball rolls weakly to shortstop for an easy first out.
Amid the cheers from the crowd, the PA announcer chimes in.
“With that broken bat, a tree will be planted in the U.S. National Forest, courtesy of the Potomac Nationals.”
It’s one of countless promotions throughout the evening, most with some sort of tie-in between event and sponsor. The front office will head out as a unit later in the season when the team is on the road to plant those trees themselves.
The promotions extend beyond the field. The P-Nats have also joined the ranks of minor league clubs providing special concessions this season. The team’s unique offering? A cup of bacon, which is exactly what it sounds like — a souvenir cup with 10 small strips of bacon in it, for $5.
Gonzalez needs just four pitches to record three groundouts in the first inning. In the bottom of the frame, Potomac leadoff man Randolph Oduber doubles, then advances to third and scores on a pair of groundouts, giving the P-Nats the early lead.
“That’s the first run of the game!” bellows the PA system as Oduber crosses the plate. “Brought to you by the National Air Traffic Controllers Association.