VIERA — Ever since his name was linked to a Coral Gables anti-aging clinic that Major League Baseball is investigating for allegedly distributing performance-enhancing drugs, Gio Gonzalez has been hounded for an answers.
But a phone call Gonzalez missed last week had nothing to do with the allegations he repeatedly has shot down. The voicemail left by Team USA manager Joe Torre was to inform Gonzalez, a 27-year-old, two-time All-Star and Miami native, his country wanted him to play in the third installment of the World Baseball Classic.
“It was an honor getting his voicemail and listening to him talk,” said Gonzalez, who went 21-8 with a 2.89 ERA for the Washington Nationals and finished third in National League Cy Young voting last season.
“When you get that invitation, it just puts a smile on your face. It makes you know you’re still welcome by a lot of baseball players.”
Gonzalez, a state champion at Hialeah High and graduate of Miami Monsignor Pace, won’t be the only major leaguer with a South Florida connection to play for one of the 16 participating nations in next month’s international tournament.
Blue Jays catcher J.P. Arencibia (Miami Westminster Christian), Indians closer Chris Perez (University of Miami), Brewers outfielder Ryan Braun (UM) and Marlins outfielder Giancarlo Stanton and closer Steve Cishek also will be wearing the red, white and blue. The Americans will be playing May 7-10 in Pool D along with Mexico, Italy and Canada in Phoenix. Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo, a former standout at Parkland Douglas High, will be playing for the Italians.
Dodgers pitcher Paco Rodriguez (Miami Gulliver Prep), a 21-year-old left-hander who got his first taste of the majors last season, will be among a handful of South Floridians representing Spain in Pool C (May 7-10) in San Juan.
The other locals representing the Spanish: brothers Paco Figueroa and Danny Figueroa (Gulliver Prep/UM), pitchers Richard Salazar (Miami Dade College), pitcher Eddie Morlan (Miami Coral Park High) and catcher Adrian Neto (Plantation American Heritage). Spain is considered a heavy underdog to Venezuela and the Dominican Republic, which both will be littered with All-Stars and major leaguers including former Marlins Miguel Cabrera (Venezuela), Jose Reyes (Dominican Republic) and Hanley Ramirez (Dominican Republic). Host Puerto Rico is managed by former Marlins manager Edwin Rodriguez.
The other eight teams in the tournament — Japan, China, Cuba, Brazil in Group A, and Korea, Netherlands, Australia and Chinese Taipei in Group B — will complete their round-robin pool play March 2-6 in Japan and Taiwan.
The second round for the top two teams advancing from Pool C and Pool D will be March 12-16 at Marlins Park. The semifinals are scheduled for March 17-18 at San Francisco’s AT&T Park. The final is March 19.
The final 28-man rosters for the World Baseball Classic will not be finalized until Feb. 20.
“At the end of the day, it’s a good thing for the fact I get to represent my country, my family and where I’m from,” Gonzalez said. “The best thing to do is go out there and make sure you perform at the top of your game.”
Nationals manager Davey Johnson indicated Gonzalez likely would start the third game of the tournament for the Americans against Canada, on May 10. The Nationals are already trying to prepare Gonzalez for that — and potentially a few weeks away from the club — by making sure he gets three starts for them before leaving to join the U.S. team March 5.
Like all major-league teams, the Nationals are a bit nervous about their star players participating and getting injured in the tournament. There are strict restrictions on all pitchers in the WBC, with limits of 65 pitches in the first round, 80 in the second round and 95 in the championship round.
Relievers can pitch on back-to-back days if they don’t exceed 30 pitches the first day. But if they throw more more than 30 pitches in a game, they’re required to take a day off. After back-to-back appearances, regardless of pitch counts, pitchers must get a day off.
The United States has never reached the final, losing in the second round in 2006 and in the semifinals at Dodger Stadium in ’09.
Arencibia played for two college national teams and hit .302 with eight home runs on his way to being named the 2006 world championship’s most valuable player after leading the U.S. team to a gold medal in Cuba. But playing in the WBC will be a step up for the 27-year-old catcher, who is expected to see action behind All-Star Joe Mauer of the Minnesota Twins.
“It’s a huge honor to play against guys who are perennial All-Stars and Hall of Famers,” Arencibia said. “It’s exciting to be on that kind of team and represent my country. This is going to be the third time I do it.
“But obviously this is at the highest level anyone can get to.”