The pitch that has vaulted Gio Gonzalez into baseball's elite was learned in a narrow, partly grassy patch between his childhood home and his neighbor's house in Hialeah, Fla. He was 13, and his father, Max, an astute observer of baseball, wanted his son to learn a new pitch because his fastball, at the time, was average.

The mound was the gray metal generator. Gonzalez stood in front of it and behind a strip of concrete floor, a stand-in for the rubber on the mound. Max set up as the catcher in front of the wooden fence at the far end near the street and instructed his son: Throw the curveball with the same force as your fastball, get your fingers on top of the ball and do it until you find a comfortable grip.

"I'd throw it and throw it and one day I just got so fed up with, 'You're not throwing it right, you're not throwing it right,'?" Gonzalez said. "And I just started throwing and slinging and I wanted to throw it as hard as I can and snap it."

And with that, perhaps the best left-handed breaking ball in the major leagues was spawned. There, Gonzalez found his own unconventional grip, began mastering his textbook mechanics and deceptive delivery, and started on his path to becoming a leading candidate for the National League Cy Young Award this season.

The Washington Nationals forked over four top prospects last winter to acquire the pitcher from the Oakland Athletics, a hefty price for an all-star still learning to harness his prodigious talent. But Gonzalez, 27, has exceeded all expectations. He was the first pitcher in the majors to 20 wins, one of the majors' best left-handers, the Nationals' unquestioned ace without Stephen Strasburg and their Game 1 starter in Sunday's National League Division Series against the St. Louis Cardinals. His wicked, hard and disappearing curveball is a major reason why.