For days the Washington Nationals could do little right. They’d hit a ball on the screws, and it’d drop securely into an outfielder’s glove. They’d try to throw a perfectly-placed pitch, and it’d end up outside the zone — or right in the middle of it. They’d field a routine ball and somehow not make the out it seemed destined for.
And then, seemingly as quickly as an onslaught of sloppy play and frustrating losses had descended upon them in recent days, it vanished under a cloudless sky on Thursday evening.
Suddenly, in an 8-1 beat down of the Cincinnati Reds that featured a stellar pitching performance, big offense from across the lineup and crisp defense, they were, very simply, themselves.
“This is who we are,” said catcher Kurt Suzuki. “This is the type of baseball we play. The last couple series hasn’t been us. This is how we play the game.”
The Nationals (11-11) hadn’t held a team not named the Miami Marlins to a run or less all season. They hadn’t scored more than two runs in a single game this week. They’d forgotten, at least briefly, what it felt like to stand on the field and shake hands at the end of a game.
But then Gio Gonzalez took the mound, and turned in one of his finest performances since joining the Nationals more than a season ago. Then Gonzalez allowed one measly hit to a ferocious Reds’ offense over the course of eight dominant innings, walked two and struck out seven.
“Just outstanding,” as manager Davey Johnson put it.
Then, buoyed by six runs in the first three innings — including Bryce Harper’s eighth home run of the season and a double and a homer out of Danny Espinosa, who celebrated his 26th birthday — they attacked Bronson Arroyo better than they have almost any pitcher in the last few weeks.
They rapped out 12 hits off the Reds’ pitching and four of their eight position players turned in multi-hit efforts. Even those struggling most, like first baseman Adam LaRoche, caught a break and reached on a two-base throwing error by first baseman Joey Votto.
“That’s how this club should play,” Espinosa said after his 2-for-4 night. “Obviously we’re going to lose ballgames. We’re going to have bad ballgames where things just happen. We’re going to make errors.
“But the way we played tonight… this is definitely more of what I expect from our team, rather than the last three games.”
It started with Gonzalez, who was coming off three straight starts in which he didn’t pitch well enough or deep enough for the Nationals to truly be satisfied. Instead of trying to make a perfect pitch on Thursday, he peppered the strike zone and let his talent do that for him.
“I didn’t want to let (my teammates) down again,” Gonzalez said.
He rarely, if ever, used his changeup. He relied on a fastball that popped the mitt at 93 and 94 mph all night — an uptick in velocity from the previous rocky starts — and his curveball was devastating as ever, particularly with two strikes. His lone mistake came when he fell behind Joey Votto 2-1 with two outs in the fourth inning, and served up a line-drive home run to left field to the former National League MVP.
But mostly, Gonzalez stopped thinking so much about what he needed to do to avoid getting beat, and instead just let it fly.
“That’s the thing with Gio,” Suzuki said. “When he starts thinking about what he’s trying to do, or hoping the hitter doesn’t do this or that, that’s when he starts falling into trouble.
“Today was just get the ball and go. He was rocking fire. That’s what Gio needs to do. That’s what Gio does. And when he does that, he’s successful most times out of not because his stuff is that good.”
And in the clubhouse, a section of Nationals Park that had been cordoned in silence after the previous six home games, music flowed through the speakers once again.
“It’s a lot more fun to win a ballgame,” Espinosa said. “To lose the last four in a row, it’s not easy. To know how good we are and to lose four in a row, or not just four. There’s a couple games we got handed to us. It’s not like we were losing and playing good ballgames. We were losing and not playing well. That’s a little tougher.”
“(This win is) real satisfying,” Johnson added. “You’ve got to take the good with the bad. Sometimes it’s tough. It’s tough for everybody out there. But getting going is the main thing. That was a big day.”