Matt Wieters faced an uncomfortable few minutes in the bottom of the second inning on a chilly but sunny day at Nationals Park.
But the Washington catcher, after a rare change in pitchers after just five batters, hit a solo home run off former teammate T.J. McFarland as the Nationals beat the first-place Arizona Diamondbacks 3-1 to salvage the finale of the three-game series Sunday.
It was just the second win in eight games for the Nationals (12-16), who improved to 4-9 at home.
Wieters, the No. 6 hitter in the Nationals lineup, took a ball from Arizona left-handed starter Robbie Ray to lead off the last of the second.
After the pitch, Ray, a former Washington minor league prospect, grabbed his side and was forced to leave the game with a strained right oblique. That meant Arizona lefty reliever McFarland had to quickly warm up in the bullpen before taking the mound.
And that also meant Wieters had to linger on the on-deck circle, facing a new pitcher but one with whom he shared a common past.
Wieters worked the count to 3-2 before hitting a solo homer off McFarland, his teammate with the Baltimore Orioles from 2013-16.
“It can be tough,” Wieters said. “I caught Mac (four) years in Baltimore. So I had a pretty good idea of what he is doing to feature. I knew he is going to be able to come at you with a sinker. I was just fortunate to get one of them up in the air.”
Wieters entered the game hitting just .200 and just two extra-base hits – both home runs – in 35 at-bats.
The switch-hitting catcher was part of a lineup Sunday that had just one player — Howie Kendrick — hitting above .261. Washington made it 2-0 in the second when McFarland made an error with two outs and the bases loaded as Wilmer Difo scored. Michael A. Taylor homered in the third to make it 3-0.
“I felt like I have hit some balls hard and haven’t really gotten anything for it,” said Wieters, who was 1-for-3 with a walk. “More than anything staying focusing on what we are working on: keeping it simple, keeping it easy.”
Behind the plate, Wieters was able to coax seven innings from Nationals starter Gio Gonzalez, who improved to 3-2 as he went a season-high seven innings. It was his Gonzalez’s win against the Diamondbacks since 2013.
The veteran from Miami went just five innings in his previous start, a loss in San Francisco against the Giants on April 23.
But this time, he fanned the side in the fifth and then got the last out of the seventh with a runner on base and the Nationals clinging to a 3-1 lead.
“You could tell he was a getting a little bit tired,” Wieters said. “But he knew he needed to keep going. He showed a lot of guts. His breaking ball was sharp; I knew it was a pitch we would be able to use in that (seventh) inning. That is what we needed him to do, get through the seventh, and he did.”
It was a much needed win for the Nationals, who are 0-6 in one-run games at Nationals Park this month – with three of those losses coming in extra innings.
And the outing by Gonzalez helped get some rest for the bullpen, which has one of the worst ERAs in the National League.
The Diamondbacks (19-8) left town leading the National League West. The next home foe for the Nationals is the Pittsburgh Pirates, who come to Nationals Park on Monday leading the National League Central at 17-11.
“It was a good way to go into the next series, that is for sure,” Gonzalez said. “Everyone calmed me down (in the seventh). I felt great. I felt I could have kept going.”
Gonzalez was pleased with the confidence shown by his manager, Dave Martinez, who admitted he made a mistake in Saturday’s loss when he made a pitching change after he thought Arizona had put a pinch-hitter into the game.
Gonzalez was not happy after getting pulled against the Giants and told his manager that. The two had a positive conversation Tuesday about the incident.
After Gonzalez departed Sunday, Brandon Kintzler threw a scoreless eighth and lefty closer Sean Doolittle pitched the ninth for his fifth save.
“It is all about communication,” Martinez said. “We just need to communicate daily. Today (Gonzalez) was pounding the strike zone. I felt really good about what he was doing today.”