The Washington Times - February 25, 2013, 08:15PM

PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. — Gio Gonzalez has spent almost his entire time in Nationals camp this spring trying to distance himself from the report linking him to the Biogenesis clinic thought to be supplying ballplayers with performance-enhancing drugs.

He’s issued several denials of any use of PEDs, announced news that he passed a drug test administered two days after the initial report came out and said he’s cooperating with Major League Baseball in their investigation into the matter. He’s tried to steer the conversation back to his pitching, to his upcoming appearance in the World Baseball Classic, to the Nationals’ promising 2013 season.

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On Monday night, he climbed a mound and faced opposing hitters for the first time since Game 5 of the National League Division Series. He pitched. He felt butterflies. It felt good.

“It’s good to get on that mound again and get back at it,” Gonzalez said. “Especially with the fan support that I was getting out there. It’s good to hear the fans still support you and still love you.”

Gonzalez struggled with his fastball command in the first inning, throwing 10 balls in 23 pitches. He worked to find his arm slot, to pick up the catcher’s target, to acclimate himself, really, to pitching in a game again. But he improved in the second frame, after a little advice from pitching coach Steve McCatty, who reminded him between innings to focus on his mechanics.

“It’s trying to pick up the target and stay back,” Gonzalez said. “Just like a hitter, you’re trying to stay back and not fly open. That’s the same thing as a pitcher. Want to stay compact, stay closed and pick up your target right on time.”

Regardless, he seems to always have his sweeping curveball.

“I’ve always felt confident with my curveball,” he said. “It’s always been my plus pitch that I’ve gone to. It was fun to go out there and snap and work on it, but when you’re getting the results, especially like I was, getting that right off the bat early, it’s pretty exciting.”

“He had it in his mound work all spring,” manager Davey Johnson said of Gonzalez’s curveball. “Just a gifted athlete, a gifted pitcher. His fastball runs all over the place and his curveball is unhittable. He’s right where he left off.”

Gonzalez was unsure how the crowd at Tradition Field would receive him. He knows his name has been in the news in a negative light, and it was an opposing teams’ crowd. But he said all he could hear when he was warming up and on the mound was support. He made sure to mention just how much that meant to him.

“When you’ve got a lot of people supporting you and showing you love, I think that means a lot,” he said. “They appreciate it and I appreciate it. To go out there and hear people say ‘Love your work,’ ‘Love to see you go out there and pitch,’ ‘It’s fun to watch you play,’ ‘We’re (paying) money to watch out there,’ it means a lot. So I think I can take from that and go tomorrow to the clubhouse with a smile.”

Since Gonzalez arrived in camp, he’s made it abundantly clear that he doesn’t intend to let the report alter the way he carries himself. He has rarely broken from the affable, happy-go-lucky guy that he’s been since he joined the Nationals before the 2012 season.

That was on full display Monday when Gonzalez stood in front of reporters wearing a sweatshirt with a camouflage teddy bear with his underpants around his ankles on it that read “Go Commando,” and talked about how he’d gotten a wound on his forehead.

The answer? Horsing around with his french bulldog, “Hollywood.”

“She gave me a rug burn,” Gonzalez said. “I hate her. Then I love her. I look at her face and I love her again.”