Gio Gonzalez stood at the near end of the Washington Nationals’ bench in the third inning Tuesday night and smiled wide as his teammates came through. One by one they passed by and the left-hander stood there ready to slap their hands in congratulations — and thanks.
Fifty days had passed between Gonzalez’s third win of the season and his fourth, which was secured with a 7-5 victory over the National League West-leading Arizona Diamondbacks. Fifty days in which Gonzalez had made nine starts and pitched to a 2.25 ERA but, until Tuesday, had nary a win to show for it.
In that span the Nationals had played 43 games. They’d placed seven different players on the disabled list, and activated three back off it. They’d won 20 of those games, but not once when Gonzalez was the pitcher of record. They’d scored two runs or less in five of his starts.
“It was good to see these guys come alive,” Gonzalez said. “It’s nice to see these guys swinging the bat and having some fun.”
The Nationals made things far more interesting than they likely had to be. Up 6-0 at one point, the Diamondbacks kept charging — mostly against the Nationals’ bullpen — and brought the go-ahead run to the plate with two outs in the ninth inning.
It left their manager sauntering into the press conference room moments later, sitting down and letting out an exasperated sigh.
“It’s never easy, is it?” manager Davey Johnson said.
“The bullpen’s usually been pretty good here. But we’re not used to having a big lead.”
The Nationals, indeed, are not used to this type of situation.
Their offensive production is has languished among the worst in the major leagues for much of the season and while their starting pitching, in particular, has often been strong, they generally have a margin for error that falls somewhere between slim and none.
But when they do score, their pitchers most often to do not waste the efforts. Tuesday night was the 30th time this season they’ve scored five runs or more — and they are 28-2 in those games.
“That’s really how our offense should operate,” said right fielder Jayson Werth, who was 2-for-2 with two walks, two runs scored and an RBI-single. “We haven’t been doing it but we have a potent offense. We need to rally and score runs like that more often. That’ something we haven’t done this year… If we want to be a championship club that’s something that’s going to have to be night in, night out.”
The temperature at Nationals Park when Gonzalez, a 21-game winner a season ago, took the mound for the first inning was 90 degrees. Amidst a heat wave that has struck the District and looks to continue its punishment for Wednesday’s game, there was a relaxed vibe that came over the Nationals.
Gonzalez joked with former teammate — and Diamondbacks starter — Trevor Cahill that he wasn’t going to hit another ball as far as he did on a fly out to right field in the first inning. He chatted amiably with Nationals owner Mark Lerner and former Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau when he was in the on-deck circle.
Working in the heat and seeing his teammates sweat through their gear, Gonzalez joked that he tried to convince Lerner “to build an air vent behind the mound.”
His performance, 6 1/3 innings of work allowing two earned runs off nine hits and two walks with five strikeouts, was fairly standard for the left-hander, and a solid one.
But unlike most nights, Gonzalez was given the freedom to make a few mistakes.
The Nationals scored five runs in an explosive third inning that began with a walk by Kurt Suzuki, was elongated by a wild pitch and three consecutive base hits, and blown open on Adam LaRoche’s three-run home run into the visitors’ bullpen in left center field. Perhaps even more encouraging, they had chances to add on late and they did, ultimately, tack two more important runs onto that five-run third.
“We haven’t jumped off to five or six runs (very much), but we have jumped out with a couple runs early and shut it down for five, six innings and got ourselves in trouble,” LaRoche said. “We’re saying just keep pouring it down. Go into the next inning like it’s a tie ballgame and keep scoring.”
When it was over, the Nationals had again moved back to a .500 record at 38-38.
“You don’t want to be the guy left out in trying to do something right here,” Gonzalez said. “As soon as I start thinking ‘Oh I need more runs,’ It’s just going to take me off my path. They’ve done it plenty of times for me. It’s just my job to go out there and pitch. Don’t worry about the runs.”