The Washington Times - March 16, 2012, 06:55PM

TAMPA, Fla. — Gio Gonzalez looked so strong, so sharp, in his first two outings in a Washington Nationals uniform that it was easy for the mind to skip ahead.

The Nationals acquired Gonzalez in December, they introduced him in January, they got their first look at him in a game in March. Wanting to finally get to the part where Gonzalez was falling in line with Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann and Edwin Jackson in a fearsome starting rotation was understandable.

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And with the way the Nationals could possibly set up their rotation, the question came to Nationals manager Davey Johnson: Would Gonzalez be considered to be the team’s Opening Day starter?

But in an up-and-down outing Friday afternoon, Gonzalez reminded everyone that spring training is six weeks long for a reason. Pitchers need time before they’re season-ready and Gonzalez is no exception.

“Today was a learning curve for me,” Gonzalez said. “There’s a lot of things I need to work on.”

Gonzalez labored in the first inning, falling behind three of the six batters he faced and needing 32 pitches to get through the Yankees first six batters. After a five-pitch walk to Andruw Jones, pitching coach Steve McCatty came out to visit and chat — a reminder to simplify things.

Between innings, catcher Jesus Flores and Gonzalez discussed what had transpired. Gonzalez had given up a run off two hits and a walk and both agreed that they were mixing his pitches far too much instead of working to establish his fastball and go from there. 

The second and third innings were a breeze. Sixteen of his 23 pitches were strikes. The Yankees helped him by swinging often, Gonzalez said, but he struck out three in that two-inning span and got through both the bottom and the top of the Yankees order effortlessly.

But in the fourth wildness returned — partly attributed, Gonzalez said, to feeling tired on a hot day with his pitch count rising. That’s something that he doesn’t expect to happen when the lights come on in the regular season.

“If I was to go step-by-step from the first inning all the way to the fourth, it was definitely a journey,” Gonzalez said.

“In the fourth inning I was starting to lose a little fuel and the tank was starting to get a little heavy on m. I just started wearing down. Hopefully within the week, my conditioning will get better and my arm will get a stronger little-by-little. This is step-by-step.”

Gonzalez, who led the American League in walks last year, chastised himself for walking three batters and it contributing to his pitch count hitting 69 after just 3 1/3 innings. He finished with an adequate line: 3 1/3 innings, two hits, one earned run, three walks, six strikeouts — but attributed most of it to the offense and defense picking him up. 

“Gio got a little out of whack,” said Nationals manager Davey Johnson. “But I thought he threw a good ballgame. He got his work in. I was pleased with that.”