Gio Gonzalez bounced around the field at Nationals Park early Tuesday afternoon. He took violently goofy swings in the batting cage, came up smiling and bounded into the dugout to tell his manager not to worry, he’d worked on everything out there: power hitting, gap hitting, bunting. Everything.
Johnson and Gonzalez joked about when the barber was arriving to cut Gonzalez’s hair, seemingly a daily appointment. Just missed him, Gonzalez told Johnson. The manager, who’s been in baseball for the better part of the last 50 years, said he’s never seen a pitcher so relaxed on the day he pitches.
“He’s always happy,” Johnson said. “I mean, if I don’t have a smile for him, he’s hacked off at me. Not just before the game, during the game. Even when things are going bad, he wants to see my pearly whites.”
Since the Nationals returned to D.C., though, not much has gone bad for their left-hander. In a start almost identical to the one he issued five days ago, Gonzalez threw seven scoreless innings of two-hit baseball. With a 1-0 victory over the Houston Astros on Tuesday night, nailed down with some dramatics by the bullpen, Gonzalez has now thrown 14 innings inside Nationals Park, has yet to let up a run, walked two and struck out 15.
So far, D.C. agrees with him.
“At least we kept this game interesting,” Gonzalez said, wearing a throwback Washington Capitals T-shirt at his locker post-game. “We kept everybody on the edge of their seat.”
Gonzalez was magnificent, walking two and striking out eight, and he had to be. The Nationals’ offense squeaked out one run — born from a hustle double by Jayson Werth in the fourth inning and brought home on an RBI single by Adam LaRoche one batter later.
For the sixth time in their first 12 games, they scored three runs or less. Yet with a starting staff that has compiled a 1.69 ERA and is striking out an average of 8.44 batters per nine innings, they’re 9-3. They’ve already played six one-run games this season — and won four of them.
“It’s not easy on me,” Johnson said. “But we’ve got the guys … we actually like it when it’s close like that. It puts more on every at-bat, every pitch. We’re playing games kind of like in a pennant race. And that’s good for later on in the season. Good teams win close ballgames. … As long as the games are close, we’ve got a chance to win.”
“I think it is sustainable for this team,” said substitute closer Brad Lidge, who picked up his second save of the season. “Obviously, we’re not going to win every game 1-0, but I think it’s sustainable for the simple fact that our rotation is so good.”
Five days ago, Gonzalez walked off the mound after seven innings and turned a two-run lead over to the bullpen. In a ninth-inning meltdown, Lidge gave those two-runs back. He knew he couldn’t let history repeat itself when the bullpen door opened Tuesday, but his effort still wasn’t without drama.
Lidge surrendered a leadoff double to Jed Lowrie and then walked J.D. Martinez. From right field, Werth knew he’d seen this movie before, but three outs and more than few quickened pulses later, the Nationals were able to eke out the win.
As they were making their way through the celebratory post-game handshake line, Werth looked at Lidge, who admitted he hasn’t had his best stuff just yet this season, and told him what he’d thought out there in right field: “Never a doubt.”
“I was calm and collected out there,” Werth said. “I knew he had it all the way. … Doesn’t matter how you get there as long as you get there. The result’s the important thing, and I’ve got all the confidence in the world in the guy.
“Wins are wins at this point,” he added, his one of just five hits the Nationals had all night. “We’ll take them how we can get them.”