HOUSTON — This was a night the Washington Nationals needed. Their beaten and beleaguered bullpen arms could only take so much. The extra-inning games, the one-run contests, the grueling stretch of schedule, it was all catching up with them.
It was obvious to them from the early innings just how dire things were. The Nationals' relief corps looked down their row of chairs in the bullpen Wednesday night and saw their latest addition: Edwin Jackson, Saturday's starter. Just in case.
That's how they sat for nine innings of relative silence. As closer Tyler Clippard put it: "There wasn't a single ball thrown." Gio Gonzalez made sure of it.
Pitching into the ninth inning for the first time in his career, Gonzalez threw a complete game in the 4-3 victory over the Houston Astros at Minute Maid Park. Throwing to his old batterymate, Kurt Suzuki, he used 117 pitches to get 27 outs for the first time in his career and spared seven tired arms, at least for one night.
Just for good measure, he added his first career home run in the second inning.
"I can't really express the need for that," said Clippard, who has pitched on five of the last six days and was one of several unavailable relievers. "Whether Gio knew it or not, we needed a good outing from him."
The bullpen phone rang once, when Ben Francisco hit a two-out, RBI single in the ninth that sunk into left to bring the go-ahead run to the plate. "But then they were like, 'Never mind, this is Gio's game,'" Clippard said.
While it took a diving stop in the ninth by Gonzalez on an overthrow by center fielder Bryce Harper that was bound for the dugout with the winning run on third base, the Nationals got their victory just after 10 p.m. local time. Gonzalez struck out Matt Downs with runners on second and third to seal the first nine-inning complete game of his career and move the Nationals 25 games over .500 (68-43). Gonzalez threw an eight-inning complete game in 2010 in an A's loss.
"Gio couldn't have been any better," said Nationals manager Davey Johnson, who mentioned before the game the possibility that his lefty could go the distance. "We hug a lot. I'm going to hug him more. My whole bullpen should hug him. What a great effort."
Gonzalez was impeccable at limiting the damage. He gave up nine hits but walked only two. He forced the Astros to leave eight runners on base and held them to 3-for-9 with runners in scoring position. He faced the minimum in only three of his nine innings and still opened the ninth with 99 pitches. He and Suzuki wasted no time falling back into their old rhythm, even going back to the signs they used for the four years they were together with the A's.
"Warming him up in the bullpen, I was thinking, 'This is kind of weird, we're in Nationals uniforms.'" Suzuki said. "But once we kind of got in the flow a little bit, it was comfortable. Same old Gio. Good movement, a lot better command and composure on the mound."
Suzuki remembered a Gonzalez who would get into the late innings of a game and "just get so amped up he'd try to do too much." So he made sure to talk to him as the game progressed, to keep him calm and focused. "Not trying to think, 'I need to get this guy out,'" Suzuki said.
Even as things spiraled some in the ninth, awaking a crowd of 16,038 who'd hardly made their presence felt before then, Gonzalez remained in control. Even as his offense left 11 men on base and went 1-for-12 with runners in scoring position. Even when home plate umpire Angel Hernandez called a balk on Gonzalez and the opposing starter, and allowed Harper to jaw at him after a strikeout.
Gonzalez remained steady.
"I wasn't trying to think too far," said Gonzalez, who gave up three earned runs and struck out seven. "I was just trying to go out there and pound 'Zuk's glove. We were working good. We were going out there, attacking the zone. After that, it was just trying to keep our team as much as possible in the game."
As if that wasn't enough, the left-hander, who has talked down his hitting since the day of his introductory press conference, cracked the first pitch he saw from Astros starter Armando Galarraga an estimated 372 feet into the left field stands for a two-run home run.
While Gonzalez stifled his smile rounding the bases and his teammates doused him first with bubblegum upon entering the dugout and later with a shaving cream pie, Suzuki could only laugh at Gonzalez's never-before-seen home run trot.
"Today is just one of those days where you smile about it," Gonzalez said, letting out a low whistle when he glanced at his phone to see 52 text messages waiting for him. Behind him in his locker sat a ball with an inscription he'd never had before: "1st ML HR"
"Stuff like that's so cool," Clippard said. "Today it was like a Little League game for Gio. Hits the two-run homer, we win by one and he throws a complete game. That's like Williamsport Little League stuff. It's awesome. What a day for him."
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