- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 9, 2012

BOSTON — Down at first base, Adam LaRoche serves as the Washington Nationals’ welcoming committee to any runner who’s able to reach. This year, he’s greeted fewer than in the past, with the team’s major league-best pitching staff giving up 114 fewer hits and 32 fewer walks than they had at this time last year.

But when they do get there, they’ve let him hear it about his team’s pitching.

“There’s absolutely no break in this rotation,” they tell him. “It can be a miserable feeling,” LaRoche said of the general sentiment he’s been getting at first base. “You run into an offense that’s struggling a little bit and our staff definitely doesn’t help.”

Saturday afternoon, as sun drenched the 100-year-old confines of Fenway Park, the Nationals showed the Boston Red Sox just what some of those other teams have been talking about. They slumped their way off the field Friday night, struck out 13 times by Stephen Strasburg, and arrived at the park early Saturday afternoon only to realize the man on the mound for Washington this day wasn’t much easier.

In a 4-2 victory over the Red Sox to secure their 13th series win in 20 tries, Gio Gonzalez held Boston scoreless over 6 ⅓ innings. The only two runs, which were charged to him, came after he’d left the game. Gonzalez allowed just three hits and struck out five.

In the 18 innings that have been played this series, the the Nats’ starters have given up seven hits, walked four and struck out 18. Gonzalez has been hit less per nine innings than any starter in the National League, entering this game with a 5.32 mark.

“It’s no picnic to the opposing hitters,” said Nationals manager Davey Johnson. “It can put them in a bad way. Gio’s been exceptional, more so than anybody on the ball club giving up hits per inning. He’s so hard to hit.”

Gonzalez faltered some as he began to tire in the seventh, a pattern that has been on display before. There have been times he’s been allowed to work through it, but not this time. From the dugout, Johnson felt Gonzalez was rushing himself and flying open, leading to command issues and a walk that resulted in the Red Sox’s first run of the game.

“It’s like he’s trying to get to the finish line,” Johnson said. “I’ve stayed with him numerous times, but I didn’t have that good feeling in this ballpark. Maybe it’s just this ballpark. I knew I left myself open when I hooked him.”

“I wanted to go the distance,” Gonzalez said. “But that’s a situation where I trust my bullpen 100 percent.”

Johnson’s decision loomed after reliever Craig Stammen walked Darnell McDonald and reliever Michael Gonzalez served up a first-pitch, two-run single to pinch-hitter Jarrod Saltalamacchia. But the Nationals were able to escape without further damage.

LaRoche’s second-inning solo homer and a three-run fourth, courtesy of Michael Morse’s RBI double and a two-run single from Ian Desmond, stood up as enough support.

“That’s been our strength all year,” Johnson said. “Holding the opposition down, giving [us] a chance to go ahead. … The offense is more relaxed because the pitching is so good.”

On Sunday, the Nationals will attempt to secure their second sweep in 12 tries. But while the Red Sox might have gotten past Strasburg and Gonzalez, Jordan Zimmermann doesn’t figure to be much of a let-up, either. He comes in with a 2.82 ERA.

“The last two guys,” said Red Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia, “They were pretty darn good.”

“It’s no picnic tomorrow with Zimmermann,” Johnson said. “Any of our pitchers. They’ve done a great job.”

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