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Gio's return to form welcome sign for Nats @matthewhleach

WASHINGTON -- The Nationals broke out of their offensive funk on Thursday night, and that's nice. They also got their No. 2 starter back on track, and that's critical.

Considering the competition, Gio Gonzalez turned in his best start of the year in an 8-1 win against the Reds. He struck out seven against two walks over eight innings, allowing one hit while pitching past the sixth for the first time all year. Gonzalez was brilliant for a team that will be counting on its starters if it hopes to achieve those World Series dreams.

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Washington has a good offense, maybe a very good one. Those hitters will hit, even if they hadn't done much of it lately. But the Nats are built around their starting pitching, and they'll go as far as it takes them.

At times recently, it hadn't taken them very far. Stephen Strasburg hasn't been bad by any means. In fact, he's been good -- just not the dominant force that he's capable of being. Dan Haren is scuffling. And Gonzalez had struggled in each of his past two starts.

That's why when Gonzalez righted the ship on Thursday, it was a big deal. And it was as simple as "letting it eat." Gonzalez felt he had gotten away from attacking hitters and instead was trying to be too fine, too perfect. He was trying to hit the head of a pin, and with stuff like his, there's no need to do that.

So he got back to basics, throwing strikes with his fastball, finishing hitters off with his curveball and not worrying about anything else.

"That's the thing with Gio," said catcher Kurt Suzuki, who also caught Gonzalez when the two played for Oakland. "When he starts thinking about what he's trying to do or hoping the hitter doesn't do this and that, that's when he starts falling into trouble. Today, it really was just get the ball and go. It was rock and fire. That's what Gio needs to do, and that's what Gio does. When he does that, he's successful more times than not, because his stuff is that good."

Gonzalez didn't throw a changeup all night. Out of 112 pitches, every one was a fastball or a curveball. Nearly 70 percent went for strikes. Of the 27 plate appearances against Gonzalez, 20 began with a strike or a ball in play. He did exactly what he set out to do.

"'[Pitching coach Steve McCatty] was always saying there's nothing changed, you still look the same," said Gonzalez. "Go out and pound it. But you have to feel it within you to make the adjustment. That's exactly what it was. Trying to make an adjustment to stop making it so perfect, to just go out there and throw strikes."

It might be easy to forget, given the attention shown to his teammate Strasburg, but a year ago, it was Gonzalez who was a Cy Young Award finalist. After Strasburg was shut down, Gonzalez was the Game 1 playoff starter. Strasburg is the Nats' No. 1, but Gonzalez, at his best, isn't all that far behind.

The problem was that he hadn't been at his best. If Thursday indeed represented a turning point for the left-hander, it could be a turning point for the team as well. Not because of "momentum" or any notion like that, but because he is easily one of the team's most important players.

Strasburg is pitching better than his line, and really has only had one rocky start. Gonzalez looked like his 2012 self on Thursday. Jordan Zimmermann and Ross Detwiler have been just fine.

This is the best news of all for the Nats. With Gonzalez in form, their rotation is as good as any in the league. It appears he is in form.

Look out, National League.

Matthew Leach is a writer for Read his blog, Obviously, You're Not a Golfer and follow him on Twitter at @MatthewHLeach.

Washington Nationals, Gio Gonzalez