- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 11, 2012

JUPITER, Fla. — Gio Gonzalez and his familial entourage rolled into Roger Dean Stadium around 8:30 a.m. Sunday. They turned out more than 20 strong to watch the Hialeah, Fla., native in his second spring start — from his parents, Max and Yolanda, to aunts, uncles, cousins and the Hialeah baseball team he helps sponsor and coach.

It was nothing compared to what the Gonzalez clan expects when the Washington Nationals visit the Miami Marlins this season, but he could hear them all cheering from their perch atop the stands.

“Are you kidding me? My parents, I had to tell them, turn it down a notch,” Gonzalez said, his smile hinting at his prideful embarrassment. “We’re all grown men here. This ain’t the Khoury League anymore.”

It’s not in his home state like Sunday’s game was, but if Gonzalez were to pitch on Opening Day in Chicago, 24 days from now, his ticket-request line may just explode.

Gonzalez was superb against the St. Louis Cardinals, needing just 51 pitches to get through four innings before rain halted the game in the middle of the fourth with the Nationals up 1-0. His curveball was sharp from the get-go, striking out his first batter Shane Robinson swinging on a pitch that the bottom dropped out of, and he didn’t let down from there.

It was the latest in a string of strong performances from the Nationals’ starters as they near the end of their second full turn through the rotation. Jordan Zimmermann will be the final starter to make his second appearance when he pitches Monday.

Manager Davey Johnson said earlier this spring that after two turns through, he might reveal his rotation order. While Stephen Strasburg may be the Opening Day starter most expect, Johnson didn’t shoot down the idea that Gonzalez could be the one getting the ball April 5 in Chicago.

“He’s probably a candidate,” Johnson said. “He’s probably the only one who’s been an All-Star, and, with the exception of Chien-Ming Wang, he’s the only one who’s been nudging 20 wins a couple years in the big leagues.”

Edwin Jackson, too, was an All-Star during the 2009 season with Detroit, though he projects as Washington’s No. 4 starter.

For Gonzalez, who may get the nod partly because of the way the Nationals could set up the schedule for Strasburg in his first full season back from Tommy John surgery, it would be his first Opening Day assignment in the majors .

“Oooh,” he said, when asked what it would mean to him to draw that duty. “That’s tough. I think that everyone there has earned their stripes to be there at the top of the rotation. Give me the ball, I’m ready to go. Anywhere in that rotation, I want to pitch, but I don’t look that far ahead.”

In the short term, the Nationals have been strong on both ends of the rotation. While John Lannan was pitching in Lakeland, Fla., on Saturday, Wang impressed the coaches in his two innings against the New York Mets at Space Coast Stadium, hitting 88-91 mph on the radar gun with a good sinker.

Hours before rain would ensure Gonzalez got his work but not much else Sunday, Johnson sat in the dugout and tried to deflect questions about defining either end of his rotation.

“Let’s put that off another day,” he said. “We haven’t even gone through the rotation twice and you want an Opening Day starter? Fifth starter? … It’s fun to have conjecture, but I’m experienced enough in this job to know that [the pitchers] will decide [with their performance.]”

NOTES: Outfielder Michael Morse received a cortisone shot Saturday to help ease the right lat strain he’s been dealing with the past few days. Morse did not begin his scheduled throwing program Saturday. He could see some time at designated hitter this week.

• Bryce Harper also is not expected to be in the lineup Monday with his tight left calf prohibiting from going through a full workout and running test.

• Outfielder Xavier Paul was given a leave of absence from camp for personal reasons.

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