- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 19, 2012

It was a scene that, for so many years, was routine inside Nationals Park. It was startling to see Thursday afternoon.

A game billed as a matchup of the two winningest pitchers in the National League. A duel between the Washington Nationals’ ace lefty and the New York Mets‘ ace knuckleballer. The last to crack would be the first in the league to 13 wins.

Instead, Gio Gonzalez turned in his first true dud as a National.

Instead it was a sun-splashed, sweat-soaked blowout at the hands of the New York Mets, who staved off a series sweep with a 9-5 victory.

“It was one of those days,” said Nationals manager Davey Johnson, who was given the “evil stare” by Gonzalez when he went out to hook his ace lefty after just 3.1 innings. “It’s one out of every 100.”

The rarity of what the Nationals witnessed was jarring. Not only did Gonzalez, who termed his outing “a little flat,” surrender six earned runs, he did it in his shortest start of the season. Entering the game, Gonzalez had a 2.93 ERA and was averaging six innings per start.

Not Thursday, bringing his ERA in his previous nine starts up to 4.93.

“You’ve just got to learn,” Gonzalez said. He struggled with his command, needing 68 pitches to get 10 outs and serving up two home runs in the first six at-bats. But his loudest mistake was a fastball down the middle to red-hot David Wright, who finished this three-game series 7 for 13 with two doubles and three homers. It put the Nationals in a two-run hole, and the Mets didn’t let up from there.

“You hit some patches once in a while,” Gonzalez said. “Especially a good team like that, where they swing the bat and they do a good job doing it. Leave anything up, they’re going to make you pay for it. I learned first-hand.”

As he walked into the air-conditioned press conference room, Johnson didn’t appear weary.

He spent the majority of his time discussing the positives he saw in the previous three hours. That shortstop Ian Desmond, shelved for most of the past five games with an oblique strain, got a hit off the bench, scored a run and played the field as a “test run” for his return to the starting lineup Friday. That Drew Storen, almost nine months removed from his last appearance in the major leagues, took his surgically repaired right elbow to the mound and pitched a spotless ninth inning. That Ryan Zimmerman, 2 for 2 with his 11th home run, could rest and give way to Mark DeRosa, who went 2 for 3.

That the Nationals, down 9-1 at one point, subbed out four starters and still managed to have the tying run on deck in the eighth and ninth innings.

“It’s not always just a complete bad day,” Johnson said. “There were a lot of good things that happened that I was really proud to see.”

They cannot spend too much time lamenting the rare losses like these. Not with this grueling post-All-Star break stretch about to hit its stride with four games in three days against the Atlanta Braves and 3.5 games separating the two in the National League East standings.

The Nationals are 7-1 with two splits in series against the NL East. And of the 30 series they’ve played, they’ve lost only seven. But this weekend against the Atlanta Braves, they’ll face the stiffest challenge to their perch atop the division that they’ve had in months.

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