- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 9, 2018

When the pool of reporters gathered around Gio Gonzalez’s locker following Thursday’s 6-3 win, the Nationals starter seemed as if a weight was off his shoulders, and for good reason.

“It’s good to see you smile,” he said to one journalist. Gonzalez hadn’t heard the blaring rap music too frequently in the clubhouse after one of his outings. It had been some time since he was the winning pitcher in a postgame handshake line — since May 28, in fact.

So Thursday was a welcome turn for Gonzalez, who had occasionally been curt when questioned after a start during his 11-game slide without a victory as he searched for as many answers as the press did regarding his performance on the mound.

Washington, chasing Atlanta and Philadelphia in the National League East, needed a win Thursday to even the four-game series against the Braves. The Nationals got it behind Gonzalez’s revitalized effort, in which he completed seven innings of one-run baseball.

“I was just happy that I got to finally high-five my teammates for the first time in a while,” Gonzalez said. “It was just going out there and doing what I can do. Just go out there and try to pitch the best I can, and today it finally showed. Finally, steps in the right direction.”

Prior to Thursday’s game, manager Dave Martinez said he needed “Gio to be Gio today.” But what exactly does it mean to “be Gio” when Gonzalez has been hampered by a turbulent campaign?

Before Thursday, Gonzalez lasted seven innings just once in his previous 10 starts. The 32-year-old went 0-6 in those games, pitched to a 6.75 ERA, allowed a .319 batting average against and a .411 on-base percentage.

Martinez needed Gonzalez to produce something more akin to his July 28 start, in which he held the Miami Marlins to one run in seven frames.

“Throw strikes — quality strikes — and get ahead of hitters,” Martinez had said. “Stay away from the big innings. The biggest thing from Gio is he has one inning where things kind of get away from him. Let’s try to stay away from that inning.”

Behind in the count 2-0 to Braves outfielder Nick Markakis, Gonzalez attempted to groove a two-seam fastball by the first-time all-star. Markakis sent the middle-in pitch into the right-field seats for a one-run lead in the second inning.

But that was Gonzalez’s only big miss Thursday. Gonzalez hit his spots throughout the contest, such as a low two-seamer that caught Ronald Acuna Jr. looking for one of Gonzalez’s three strikeouts.

“He picked us up,” Martinez said. “Like I said before the game, if he keeps us in the ballgame, then we have a chance to win, and he did that.”

Gonzalez also avoided big innings, striking out pitcher Anibal Sanchez to strand two runners in the second. Right fielder Adam Eaton threw Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman out at the plate to conclude the third.

Gonzalez retired 12 of the final 13 batters he faced, surrendering six hits and walking one with 94 pitches.

“I think that’s the big thing today,” catcher Matt Wieters said, “when he did get ahead [of batters], he kept pounding the zone and kept staying ahead of them.”

In a perfect world for Washington, its offense would have supported Max Scherzer’s one-run start Tuesday and Tommy Milone would have kept the contest closer Wednesday, two games that would have gone a long way in the Nationals‘ hunt for the postseason.

But Washington needed Thursday, at least, to split the series against Atlanta. It keeps the Nationals‘ playoff hopes alive — although perhaps it’s still on life support — before a road trip to the Chicago Cubs and St. Louis Cardinals.

And it shined light on what it means for “Gio to be Gio,” something the Nationals will no doubt need to see more often than not in the final two months of their campaign.

“He doesn’t give many hard-hit balls, he really doesn’t,” Martinez said. “Keeps the ball on the ground for the most part. So, hopefully we found something on him and he keeps going.”

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