ATLANTA — It was billed as the best statistical pitching matchup since Fernando Valenzuela and Dwight Gooden battled at Chavez Ravine in 1985. Gio Gonzalez vs. Brandon Beachy, both taking their sub-2.00 ERAs to the mound, both hoping to notch an important victory for their team.
But when it was over, when the Washington Nationals had soundly defeated the Atlanta Braves, 7-2, in front of a national audience on ESPN's Sunday Night Baseball, there was only one pitcher whose name was being uttered in the same sentence as Cy Young.
"What a game Gio pitched," said Nationals manager Davey Johnson whose team improved to 5-1 on their current nine-game National League East road trip.
Just how good was Gonzalez in pitching the Nationals to their first series sweep of the season? In seven innings he gave up one hit, struck out 10 and walked three — and his catcher's initial evaluation was that he's seen better from the left-hander.
"I felt like he wasn't as great as I'm used to," said Jesus Flores, who paused before acknowledging that was still pretty darn good. "Still unhittable. But for me, he wasn't hitting my spot. I think it worked out good, anyway."
The Braves did manage two runs off him, but they had to manufacture them as best they could. One scored on a ground out, the other on a suicide squeeze. Beachy, truly, was no competition.
On a night in which the suddenly sizzling hot Nationals offense scored seven or more runs for the third straight game, Gonzalez could have gotten by easily with three. After Michael Bourn's leadoff triple in the third, Gonzalez allowed just one more baserunner before his night was through.
On a night when it seemed he was destined to follow the Nationals' starters recent trend of untenably high pitch counts, Gonzalez settled in well enough to finish the seventh at 108 pitches. He made sure of that.
"After six, he was at like (92) pitches and he said something to me like 'Don't you take me out of there. I'm going seven no matter what,' " Johnson said. "I was counting on it."
As the Nationals have barreled their way through the first quarter of the 2012 season, there have been various benchmarks to point to that have distanced them from their sordid past. Sunday night was another. The Nationals have been in position to sweep a team 10 times this season. They failed the first nine. But against the Braves, in a series they dominated a depleted Atlanta unit basically from start to finish, they got their first.
The differences between the two teams at Turner Field this weekend was striking. Take for instance the fact that the Braves, once owners of one of the best bullpens in the major leagues, called on 37-year-old Livan Hernandez in a tie game as their first man out of the bullpen. Or the fact that, after being fooled by Hernandez's trademark slow curve in his first at-bat, Bryce Harper hammered his fourth home run of the season to right center in his second try.
Beachy entered Sunday night with the best ERA in the league and was averaging seven innings a start. The Nationals pushed his pitch count over 100 before the sixth inning.
"I wasn't taking no prisoners in that ballgame," said Johnson, who went to Sean Burnett with two outs in the ninth to get a more preferable matchup despite a five-run cushion. "I wasn't letting them get no momentum going."
But momentum, seemingly, is all the Nationals can find these days. They'll wake up in Miami on Memorial Day 29-18, with a 2½ game cushion in the NL East standings with a chance to expand that gap with three more division games.
"Memorial Day or not, we've still got to get to October or whenever the season ends," said shortstop Ian Desmond. "We've got to get to that point. It's not about what you get through Memorial Day. We're playing well, we're having fun and we've got a good group of guys. It's a pleasure coming to the park everyday."
Perhaps no one takes more pleasure in that act each day that Gonzalez, the oft-smiling left-hander. As the Nationals' trainers, Johnson and pitching coach Steve McCatty rushed to the mound in the seventh when Gonzalez caught a cleat and looked, for a moment, to be hurt, they arrived to find him laughing. After his seventh win in 10 tries, he had all the more reason to smile.
"I think Gio's a No. 1 pitcher," Harper said. "Every time we go out there I think we're going to win with him on the bump.
"Hopefully," he added, "he can win a Cy Young this year. That'd be great."
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