The Washington Times - July 5, 2013, 11:54PM

Here are a handful of thoughts and observations after the Nationals outslugged the Padres 8-5 at Nationals Park on Friday night:

Start with Gio Gonzalez. His propensity to pitch into trouble in early innings is no secret. The script is familiar enough that the postgame comments from Davey Johnson and the left-hander analyzing the problems start to sound like those from any number of previous starts.

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Four of the first seven men reached base against Gonzalez, including three doubles. The first-pitch temperature was 88 sticky degrees and the pitcher attributed the struggle, in part, to the heat. That left the baseball difficult to grip and, from his perspective, made keeping the ball down challenging.

“It was one of those days you have to battle through,” he said.

The heat, Gonzalez said, made his arm feel heavy.

Johnson, on the other hand, thought fastball command — and not going after batters aggressively — was the problem. The Padres took advantage to work deep counts and force Gonzalez to throw 50 pitches in the first two innings.

But the pitcher understands better than most how to rebound from unpleasant starts. At one point he retired eight consecutive men, seven on ground balls. That helped Gonzalez keep his team in the game on a night when he didn’t have his best stuff.

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Expect Bryce Harper to sit the next couple of games. That’s the plan Johnson revealed postgame in hopes of giving his young star a mental and physical break. That’s not a surprise, given Harper’s 1-for-19 struggle since returning from a 31-game absence because of left knee bursitis.

“I think he’s fighting himself,” Johnson said.

Later, the manager added: “He’s just grinding too hard.”

Johnson, of course, has changed his mind before about late-night lineup pronouncements. And Harper has never been a fan of taking a day off. But the on-field scuffles have been difficult to miss.

On Friday, Harper grounded out twice, lifted a sacrifice fly to center field and struck out with a weak, off-balance swing against reliever Joe Thatcher.

Johnson didn’t seem overly concerned. He shouldn’t be. Given Harper’s extended layoff and quick four-game rehabilitation assignment, a game or two of rest is well-timed.

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Much ink has already been spilled over the return of Wilson Ramos Thursday. The catcher delivered two more hits and three RBIs Friday. Sure, the two-game sample size is miniscule. But Ramos provides a threat in the lineup’s eighth hole that Kurt Suzuki simply doesn’t.

The eight runs Ramos has brought home since coming off the disabled list are as many as Suzuki had since June 8. The upgrade at the plate is significant.

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The rest of the lineup continued its mini resurgence. This didn’t look much like the group that ranks among baseball’s worst in runs, on-base percentage, batting average, slugging percentage and about any other offensive category you can dream up. We’ve been teased before by the group appearing to emerge from its collective funk; much time remains before the season-long slump can officially be declared finished. When healthy, though, this lineup should do some damage. Even improving to a middle-of-the-pack offense would be a significant step forward to match with the pitching staff that ranks among baseball’s top third.

Much will be made of Ian Desmond’s elevation to the lineup’s troublesome second spot, one of Johnson’s brainstorms earlier this week. The more interesting sidelight is the move allowed Jayson Werth to hit sixth. He singled three times Friday and Johnson thinks the right fielder’s approach becomes more aggressive as he moves  down in the lineup. That bears watching going forward to see if, in fact, the success is sustainable.

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Being hit by a pitch isn’t something that usually elicits jokes from players. But Gonzalez was good-natured about taking an 82-mile per hour changeup from Andrew Cashner off his upper chest in the second inning.

“Right here in the iron man chest,” Gonzalez said, thumping the right side of his chest where the ball impacted.

Gonzalez was trying to get a bunt down.

“I was fortunate he hit me,” he said. “I wasn’t getting the bunt down too good.”

***

Denard Span is the talkative sort, but wasn’t pleased with his postgame interview effort. After falling back on a couple of cliches while speaking to a handful of reporters, the good-natured center fielder offered an apology.

“Sorry guys,” Span said. “That’s definitely one of my worst performances.”