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National League Cy Young Award belongs to Gonzalez Columnist @HalBodley
The competition is ever so close -- Mets knuckleballer R.A. Dickey, the Dodgers' Clayton Kershaw -- but I say that Washington's Gio Gonzalez should take home the National League Cy Young Award.

Gonzalez led the Major Leagues in wins, with 21, but more important, his left arm was a huge reason the Nationals had the best record in baseball, won the NL East and gave their city a team in the postseason for the first time since 1933.

As good as Gonzalez's competitors were, their teams failed to make the postseason. That's a huge plus for Gonzalez, a native of Hialeah, Fla.

Or, as general manager Mike Rizzo puts it, "He's the guy down the stretch who was the most consistent pitcher on the team with the best record in baseball. I think that's what the Cy Young Award is supposed to be. He pitched the most important games for us all year.

"It should be the best pitcher on the best team and the guy that's pitching pressure games at the end of the season. Not the pitcher who may be a terrific pitcher but is pitching in games much less meaningful at the end of the season."

When Gonzalez, obtained from Oakland in a trade last December, won his 20th game, a 10-4 conquest of Milwaukee, he became the first Washington pitcher to reach that coveted mark in a season and only the second in franchise history. (Ross Grimsley won 20 for the 1978 Expos.)

Even with the presence of Stephen Strasburg, Gonzalez was Washington's most reliable pitcher. He ended the regular season, upon which the Baseball Writers' Association of America solely bases its votes, with a 21-8 record and 2.89 ERA over 199 1/3 innings. Gonzalez struck out 207 against just 76 walks.

Opponents batted just .206 against Gonzalez, best in the Major Leagues, and he led the NL in strikeouts over nine innings.

To manager Davey Johnson, the fact that his left-hander was second only to Kershaw in hits allowed over nine innings was crucial. Kershaw had the NL's lowest rate (6.720 hits per nine innings), whereas Gonzalez allowed 6.727.

"My thing is hits per inning," said Johnson, himself a leading candidate for the NL Manager of the Year Award. "That tells you what kind of pitcher and stuff he has. His [stuff] is phenomenal. I don't think I've ever had somebody who had that few hits per inning."

So when Johnson -- who also managed Dwight Gooden, an NL Cy Young Award winner with the Mets -- was asked if Gonzalez should win the award this year, he said, "Hands down."

"I'm humbled, I'm grateful, but at the same time, there are plenty of guys in our rotation who deserve that kind of credit," said Gonzalez.

Even so, the left-hander's importance to the Nats late in the season cannot be underestimated.

Early in the season, Rizzo and club management placed a 160-innings limit on Strasburg, who underwent Tommy John surgery in 2010. On Sept. 7, after struggling over three innings against the Marlins, and having pitched 159 1/3 innings, Strasburg was shut down. Originally, Strasburg wasn't supposed to call it a season until Sept. 12.

That put more pressure on Gonzalez during a division race.

"He did it in a pennant race when all eyes were on him," said Rizzo. "He was up for the task and pitched terrific for us and carried the rotation through late August and September. He was the horse who brought us to winning the division."

When the Nationals traded four of their best prospects to the A's, they were convinced that adding Gonzalez to their strong rotation made it even better. But neither Rizzo nor Johnson expected 21 wins and a 2.89 ERA.

"I'd seen him pitch since he was in high school in Florida," said Rizzo. "He's been on our radar for a long time. He's a left-handed pitcher with really good stuff, swing-and-miss stuff. We felt a few tweaks and a little bit of a developmental curve was needed. We envisioned him being the No. 2 guy between our right-handers [Strasburg and Jordan Zimmermann].

"His attitude and demeanor are refreshing. We've got the two serious, stone-faced right-handers, and Gio is very lighthearted, but all business. We put an emphasis on him throwing more strikes and were convinced he'd become one of the elite starting pitchers in the National League."

Gonzalez also made the rotation the best in the NL, maybe in all of baseball.

Add this to why I think Gonzalez should be the Cy Young Award winner:

Washington was without Major League Baseball when the Senators moved to Texas after the 1971 season. The long-starved fans didn't get it back until the Expos moved to the nation's capital in 2005 and became the Nats.

But after that celebrated arrival and new name, the team finished last in the NL East in five of their first six years. There was new ownership and a new stadium.

To bring the city its first postseason venture since 1933 and be the ace of the staff deserves recognition. Had it not been for Gonzalez's surprise season, I'm not certain it would have happened, especially with phenom Strasburg being shut down.

"It wasn't done since 1933," said Gonzalez, who built his season around an explosive fastball and deceptive curve. "That means so much to me."

Bottom line: There is a difference between pitching for a playoff contender and pitching for numbers.

That's what separates Gio Gonzalez from his competitors.

Hal Bodley, dean of American baseball writers, is Correspondent Emeritus for Follow him @halbodley on Twitter.

Washington Nationals, Gio Gonzalez