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'He's just a character': Gonzalez plays happy-go-lucky role in Nationals pitching rotation

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VIERA, Fla. - Before throwing his first pitch, Gio Gonzalez uses his cleat to draw a "t'' on the mound, starting at the rubber and extending toward home plate.

When he's pitching the way he should, his right foot will always land at the base of the letter as he delivers the ball, as it did each time Monday during his bullpen session in Washington Nationals camp.

The longer vertical line keeps Gonzalez aligned with the plate. The shorter horizontal line keeps him from leaning too far forward and rushing his delivery. It's something he's been doing since his early days in the minors, a tip he learned from a pitching coach for a rookie-level team in Bristol, Va.

"He told me to use it to stay back," Gonzalez said, "because I was rushing my mechanics."

To anyone not privy to that baseball explanation, Gonzalez's drawing in the dirt looks like someone making the sign of the cross. He's OK with that, even if it's just a coincidence.

"It definitely has a little sign of respect for the man upstairs," he said. "I like to keep it within that, too. Just use it for both. For not only for my pitching, but it helps me stay within my religion. ... It's cool if you see it in that aspect, but as the same time I use it more for my mechanics. It just so happened to be that's what it looks like."

It seems there's often more than one way to get a read on Gonzalez, but that's because he's not shy about putting his moods and quirks on display. He's the outgoing, gregarious lefty of the Nationals' rotation, the locker room cut-up who collects comic books and strikeouts, the latter usually because of an unhittable curveball.

"There's always something to laugh about or make fun of him about," said Stephen Strasburg, by far the most guarded member of the rotation. "He's just a character."

When new manager Matt Williams decided to needle a player during Monday's pre-workout meeting, it was hardly surprising that Gonzalez was the target. The manager had a projection screen put up in the clubhouse and showed the team an Instagram photo in which Gonzalez proclaimed himself fashionably dressed to go out and have "dinner in style."

Gonzalez, of course, didn't take offence from the prank.

"He thought it was funny," Williams said, "and the rest of the guys thought it was funny."

Make no mistake, Gonzalez is important because he can pitch — no one's about to quibble with a 32-16 record and 3.12 ERA in his two seasons with the Nationals — but his personality also plays an essential role. Every team needs that player who can keep everyone loose, or supply a positive word when needed. Fellow starters Jordan Zimmermann and Doug Fister are low-key, and Gonzalez's embrace of the spotlight helps deflect a least a bit of the glare away from the media-shy Strasburg.

The Gonzalez-Strasburg relationship might just be the team's most intriguing locker room dynamic.

"He's such a perfectionist," Gonzalez said. "He's such a strong character, that if he finds that soft spot to open up to you, especially coming from him, a guy who's about his business, straight by the books — and then when you've got a guy like me that's just happy-go-lucky, just keep it real loose — it helps out. It works out on both sides. Sometimes you need someone to tighten you up a little bit, and (sometimes) you need someone to keep you loose. That's how it works. He's yin to my yang, or something like that. Opposites attract."

NOTES: Williams' slogan for Monday's workouts was "There is a difference between command and control." So, manager, what is the difference? "Control is within the strike zone," he said. "Command is quadrants within the strike zone. You can throw strikes, but there's good strikes and bad strikes." ... Position players report Tuesday, although nearly all are already in camp. The only starters who hadn't arrived as of Monday afternoon were OFs Bryce Harper and Jayson Werth.

___

Follow Joseph White on Twitter: http://twitter.com/JGWhiteAP

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