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. ‘We guide you home.'"
By the bottom of the second inning, the sun is setting just above the tree line that wraps the outfield wall, effectively blinding anyone sitting between home and first base. It doesn't appear to be an issue for Potomac first baseman Justin Miller, who hits the first pitch he sees for a two-out, two-run home run to stake Gonzalez and the P-Nats to a 3-0 lead.
Gonzalez, meanwhile, breezes through a second scoreless frame before finding trouble in the third. After a single and a walk, Mondesi catches him off-guard with a sneaky bunt, using his speed to load the bases with nobody out. That brings up Bubba Starling, one of three top-10 prospects in the Kansas City Royals system playing for the Blue Rocks. They're why a handful of scouts are spending their Friday night parked out with notebooks and radar guns in the section directly behind home plate.
Starling, who is off to a tough start to the season, batting under .200, doesn't disappoint. He launches a Gonzalez offering deep into the trees for a grand slam to put Wilmington in front.
By the time Gonzalez comes off the mound in the fourth inning, right at his prescribed 65-pitch mark, the Blue Rocks have scored seven times, with another runner standing at second. Despite the subpar performance, Gonzalez gets a rousing ovation from the fans as he walks to the dugout. It's a harbinger of the scene yet to unfold outside the home clubhouse.
"Bacon in a Cup" is just what it sounds like -- $5 for 10 strips of bacon, in a cup. (WTOP/Noah Frank)
"The comeback kids," chirps Spencer Stiegel, Potomac's media relations assistant. "They're never out of a game."
He's talking about his team, but the term could just as well apply to the big - leaguers in town for their short visit before returning to Washington. Potomac is often the last stop on the way to rejoining the big league club following an injury.
Bryan Holland knows. The season is only two months old, and already the P-Nats broadcaster and media relations director has had five Nationals rehab in Potomac.
"We know that it's as a result of injury that they come down here, but it's really been special to see the way that they've interacted with our fans," says Holland, who serves as the conduit between parent club and affiliate.
The rehabbers seem to inject life into the team as well. The P-Nats have won five of the seven contests including rehabbers prior to this affair, including a trio of walk-off wins. From a player and fan perspective, it's been an exciting experience, with major names rolling through town every couple of weeks.
First Doug Fister. Then Adam LaRoche. Just a week prior, franchise cornerstone Ryan Zimmerman. Gonzalez, it turns out, has drawn a crowd with the best of them.
Burke, Virginia, residents Kyle and Linda Campbell have been at The Pfitz for each Nationals rehab this season. They attend more than half the games at Nationals Park each year, but also enjoy the more quaint, intimate setting in Woodbridge, often coming down on a Friday night, rehab or not.
"It's really nice," says Linda of the energy in the crowd. "It's great for the kids. It's great for everybody who loves baseball."
Next up on the rehab docket? Likely Bryce Harper, who is expected back with the big league club sometime in early July. His older brother Bryan pitches for the P- Nats (and enters this game in the eighth inning), making Potomac a particularly good fit for a rehab stint. The Campbells have seen Bryce -- and the attention he draws -- on rehab in Potomac before, so they may avoid the crowds this time around.
"I think the worst one was Harper," says Linda of the frenzy around Washington's young star. "That one's a show. And it's a mad show. It's crazy."
The crowd gathers outside the Potomac Nationals waiting for Gio Gonzalez to emerge. (WTOP/Noah Frank)
A crowd of nearly 100 fans, young and old, adorned mostly in red, a mix of the local farm affiliate and the big league club's logos affixed to their shorts and shirts and hats, has gathered outside the red metal clubhouse door in anticipation. In these situations, it's up to the player how much he wants to interact. The fans may get to say hello, grab a handshake, an autograph, a photo or some other proof of their brush with fame. Maybe they'll just get a glimpse.
Some have been here, tucked away out of view behind the bleachers on the first-base side, since Gonzalez left the game, nearly an hour ago now. The game on the field has become an afterthought.
This is the main event on this warm and breezy late-spring Friday night in Woodbridge, and Gonzalez is the headlining act.
As the crowd grows restless, a pair of stadium security guards rolls a rusty, rickety shopping cart full of Carrabba's boxes through a gate in the chain link fence, splitting the crowd on the way into the home clubhouse.
It is a customary ritual for the big-league millionaire to treat the whole club to dinner. It's only fair -- the minimum salary at this level of professional ball is roughly $1,200 a month, and only for the duration of the season.
The free meal might be from Outback Steakhouse or Panda Express from a moderately well-paid player. If a superstar is in town, maybe steaks from Ruth's Chris. Whatever the players get, it's at least a step up from whatever $7 a day in clubhouse dues gets you in the low minors.
A fan in the crowd grabs a selfie with Gonzalez in the background. (WTOP/Noah Frank)
"Is that Gio's girlfriend?" one kid asks, as Gonzalez's fiancée, Lea, pulls up on the service road just outside the fence in a black Porsche Cayenne, adorned with license plates from Gonzalez's home state of Florida.
"No, that's his mom!" shouts back another, less-aware friend, eliciting laughter from a few of the adults in the crowd.
At long last, Gonzalez emerges. As the crowd starts to swarm, the security guards restore some semblance of order. Surrounded on three sides, Gonzalez signs and poses for photos while some fans try to snap selfies from their phones with the pitcher in the background.
The more autographs he signs, the more word seems to be spreading around the ballpark. More than 10 minutes in, there are still dozens of fans surrounding him.
"(The fans) are more about the person than they are the player," Gonzalez says of the rock-star treatment. "The minor leagues always humbles you. It just makes you appreciative of what you have up in the big leagues."
He finishes his time with the fans and hops in his car with his fiancée and his dog, Stitch, and pulls away from the ballpark, fans standing for the seventh-inning stretch of the game still being played just on the other side of the grandstand.
The Potomac Nationals have walked off winners three times during rehab assignments. (Potomac Nationals/Gary Dize)
Long after Gonzalez has gone, the Pfitz will still be here. Oduber will still be here, at least for a little while. Mascot Uncle Slam will still be here, along with $5 bacon in a cup.
Much of the announced crowd of 3,233 has long since departed by the time Oduber strikes out in his fifth at-bat of the game, leading off the bottom of the ninth. The P-Nats enter the final frame trailing 10-6, but score four runs to level the score and load the bases with two out, bringing Oduber back to the plate for the second time in the inning, now with a chance to be the hero.
In a 1-1 count, the speedy Aruban outfielder chops a slow grounder up the third-base line into the expanse of grass between the plate, the pitcher's mound and the bag. With two outs and the infield playing back, there is no time for the defense to get to the ball in time to make a play. Will Piwnica-Worms races home from third base to seal the walk-off win, eliciting a dugout-emptying, on-field party and a fist-pump from Holland, sitting in the back row of the grandstand behind home plate.
As the players bring the celebration back to the clubhouse, upbeat music pumping from a small stereo, Gonzalez is a distant memory, speeding away, literally following the road back to Washington. But he's left his teammates for the day with a renewed hope of achieving their big-league dreams and a plate full of Carrabba's with which to celebrate.
© 2014 WTOP. All Rights Reserved.