Milwaukee Brewers pitcher Gio Gonzalez delivers a pitch to the St. Louis Cardinals in the first inning at Busch Stadium in St. Louis on September 25, 2018. Photo by Bill Greenblatt/UPI | License Photo
MILWAUKEE -- One month ago, the Milwaukee Brewers took a chance on veteran left-hander Gio Gonzalez. Now, he wants to reward their faith in him and he'll get a chance to do just that on the biggest stage possible.
Manager Craig Counsell announced Saturday night that Gonzalez will get the start Sunday as the Brewers try to clinch at least a share of the National League Central title when they wrap up the regular season against the Detroit Tigers at Miller Park.
"This is exciting," Gonzalez said. "I'll be ready to go tomorrow."
It had been a rough go for the 11-year veteran left-hander. He'd gone 7-11 with a 4.57 ERA in 27 starts for the Nationals, a dramatic tumble from the 2.96 ERA he posted a year earlier while finishing sixth in Cy Young Award balloting.
The Brewers, though, saw something in Gonzalez they thought could help them down the stretch and dealt for the 33-year-old. He spent a week getting back on track with pitching coach Derek Johnson before returning to the mound. In four starts for Milwaukee, he has gone 2-0 with a 2.66 ERA, striking out 20 in 20 1/3 innings.
"Coming over here, they gave me an opportunity to show them that I could still pitch, still compete at the highest level and be with a team that's doing that every single day," Gonzalez said. "For me, it's exciting to know they found a way to squeeze me in to such a great team so I'm excited."
He's been in this position before. Gonzalez was one of the anchors of a Nationals team that had won four division titles in the last six seasons.
"I don't care who's pitching it -- they're going to feel it," Counsell said. "And you should feel it. It's a huge game. You've got to use the energy of the game to give you more focus. That's what you've got to do. It can take you to beautiful places and high levels of performance, but you've got to use it in the right way, certainly."
Miller Park was raucous Saturday night for Game 2 of the three-game set. A sellout crowd of 45,520 -- the eighth largest in stadium history -- was on hand to watch MVP candidate Christian Yelich hit two more home runs and move within two RBIs of a possible triple crown.
The atmosphere Sunday afternoon is expected to be even more jovial as the Brewers close in on their first division title since 2011.
"There's no question in my mind the vibe in the stadium flipped (Saturday)," Counsell said. "The energy level was turned way up, and you felt it."
Tigers manager Ron Gardenhire thinks playing in a playoff-like atmosphere is a good learning opportunity for his team, still in the very preliminary stages of a full-blown rebuild.
"It's a good experience," Gardenhire said. "They are really into it. That is some of the things you need to see. You need to see what it's like. It makes you hungry to get back. You'd love to see us having that at home and having our fans like that, but it's good to see. Loud, can't hear. You've got to pay attention more. Those are big at-bats. People are really into it."
Rookie right-hander Spencer Turnbull (0-1, 5.73) might not enjoy the experience quite as much, especially if Yelich continues his torrid second-half pace. Yelich has reached base in 11 straight games, posting a .486 average with five doubles, two triples and six home runs during that stretch and took over the team lead in homers with his two blasts Saturday.
He leads the league with a .324 average, is tied for lead in home runs with Matt Carpenter of the St. Louis Cardinals and is two RBIs behind league-leading Javier Baez of the Cubs, also considered an MVP front-runner.
Yelich can become the first National League Triple Crown winner since 1937, when the Cardinals' Joe Medwick batted .374 with 31 home runs and 154 RBI.
"I'm sure (the writers) will be thinking about it and the guys are going to be mentioning it to you throughout the day," Yelich said. "You can't hide from it. You've got to embrace it.
"But at the same time, we all realize that a win is at the forefront of everybody's mind. That's by far the most important thing tomorrow."