MIAMI -- By the time he walked off the mound, as the crowd gave him a standing ovation and the opposing dugout showed its sign of respect, Gio Gonzalez was spent. It was easily the most emotional -- and one of the best -- starts of his career, just narrowly missing out on a historic performance.
In the shadow of his hometown, on the 25th birthday of his late friend Jose Fernandez, and with his wife, Lea, expected to go into labor any day now, Gonzalez carried a no-hitter into the ninth inning of the Nationals' 1-0 victory over the Marlins on Monday night at Marlins Park.
As it all weighed heavily on his mind, Gonzalez had a near miss at history thwarted on his 106th pitch, a 1-1 curveball that Dee Gordon singled to begin the ninth inning.
It ended an emotional ride for Gonzalez that began earlier in the day when he visited the Fernandez family, seeing Jose's mother, grandmother, girlfriend and their infant daughter. Gonzalez and his brother were close to the family and attended the funeral together last September. Then, Gonzalez warmed up in the bullpen with a baseball, marked with Fernandez's initials and number presented to him by bullpen catcher Nelson Robledo.
"I tried to tone it down, don't let this be too much overpowering the game and what you're doing," Gonzalez said. "Today was a very emotional day. They know what's going on. I'm sure for all of us it was one of those games you just want to -- if we can all sit down and just kind of like chit chat about the good times with Jose more than going up against each other and trying to play baseball."
And Gonzalez put together a gem for eight innings, a homage to Fernandez's legacy on the mound. Gonzalez walked three and hit a batter, but he commanded his curveball in and out of the strike zone to flummox the Marlins' hitters and retire them early in the count. He struck out five and did not surrender much hard contact.
When he did, the Nationals' defense backed him up, trying to preserve the no-no. Brian Goodwin made a sliding catch in the second inning. Wilmer Difo left his feet for a backhanded grab to take a hit away at shortstop in the sixth.
"We were all hoping for it," Nationals manager Dusty Baker said. "Nobody was saying anything, but he knew it, the fans knew it, everybody knew it."
Gonzalez had a case to pitch in Miami a few weeks earlier, when Marlins Park hosted the 2017 All-Star Game presented by Mastercard. He had set a goal to make the NL All-Star team, and after his best first half in five years, had put himself in position to do so. However, despite owning the third-best ERA in the NL, he did not make the team, which disappointed him.
In his return to Miami -- about 12 miles from his hometown of Hialeah, Fla., Gonzalez nearly completed the fourth no-hitter in team history. He did it while on high alert that Lea could be heading into labor at any moment -- she joked in a text message after the game that he nearly induced it. And even in the midst of a no-hitter, Gonzalez said if he would have received word Lea was headed into labor, he would have left the mound to go be with her.
But she did not, and Gonzalez did not leave the mound until Gordon's single. At that moment, he walked off the mound exhausted, receiving a standing ovation at a visiting ballpark. And as he turned to acknowledge the Marlins' dugout, several players tipped their cap. Giancarlo Stanton clapped and gave him a fist bump from the on-deck circle.
"I know how emotional it is for them," Gonzalez said. "That's their teammate, friend, family. That's everything to them. So for us, I had a close relationship with him and so did my brother. We fished with him every other day, it felt like. Today was just one of those special days for Jose and his family. All in all, just a game you just have to fight through and put the emotion behind you and try to pitch."
Jamal Collier covers the Nationals for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter at @jamalcollier. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.