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Gonzalez recovers after early stumble

Lefty throws season-high 121 pitches to give bullpen a break
MLB.com

SAN DIEGO -- When Nationals manager Dusty Baker examined his options during Sunday's game against the Padres, he counted at best four relievers who were available to pitch Washington to a series victory. But he soon realized Gio Gonzalez, the man already on the mound, was his best choice.

Despite a 32-pitch first, Gonzalez worked 6 2/3 innings in a 4-1 victory, an unearned run the only damage against him as he threw a season-high 121 pitches. He provided a weary Nationals bullpen rest early, affording it an opportunity to thrive in later innings.

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SAN DIEGO -- When Nationals manager Dusty Baker examined his options during Sunday's game against the Padres, he counted at best four relievers who were available to pitch Washington to a series victory. But he soon realized Gio Gonzalez, the man already on the mound, was his best choice.

Despite a 32-pitch first, Gonzalez worked 6 2/3 innings in a 4-1 victory, an unearned run the only damage against him as he threw a season-high 121 pitches. He provided a weary Nationals bullpen rest early, affording it an opportunity to thrive in later innings.

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"Pitch count was up," Gonzalez said. "You learn there's always that one time you're going to have to pitch one more and save one more out or one more inning for the bullpen."

Before Friday's game against San Diego, the Nationals placed ace Max Scherzer on the 10-day disabled list shortly after scratching him from his start that night. Washington managed to piece its way to a victory, but come Sunday, the effects appeared. With Gonzalez at 97 pitches through five, Baker questioned whether he had the arms available to get through the final four frames.

Gonzalez did not slow. Having retired the final three men he faced in the fifth, he benefited when Wil Myers and Cory Spangenberg turned his first two pitches of the sixth into easy outs before starting the seventh with a pair of strikeouts.

He eclipsed his previous season high of 116 pitches in the seventh against Manuel Margot, whose opposite-field single ended Gonzalez's outing far later than initially expected.

"He took one for the team," Baker said. "We needed him to go as deep as he did. We were thinking about it around the fifth and the sixth, but we needed some innings. We couldn't fill those innings. So that was an outstanding performance for Gio."

Gonzalez's only trouble came in the first. He allowed two one-out singles, but a flyout and grounder seemed to get him out of it. The latter, though, proved troublesome when shortstop Wilmer Difo's throw was offline, bringing in a run.

Unfazed, Gonzalez charged forward, despite again throwing extra pitches in the second when right fielder Alejandro De Aza lost a two-out fly in the sun. Gonzalez held the Padres hitless in four at-bats with runners in scoring position Sunday.

Video: WSH@SD: Margot reaches as De Aza loses ball in sun

With Scherzer out and Stephen Strasburg fresh off the disabled list himself, Gonzalez provided the Nationals a wonderful outing at an optimal time. He lowered his ERA to 2.39, the third best in baseball behind a pair of injured aces: Clayton Kershaw and Scherzer.

With his 20th quality start, he matched American League Cy Young Award front-runner Chris Sale for the most in the Majors. But Gonzalez's statistical place in the scope of baseball hasn't crossed his mind.

"I'm just trying to make it into every start," Gonzalez said. "It's tough to do, especially the way hitters swing the bat now. … For me, I'm just trying to follow what [catcher] Matt Wieters puts down."

Video: WSH@SD: Doolittle fans Coleman to earn the save

Joe Blanton, Brandon Kintzler and Sean Doolittle combined for 2 1/3 shutout innings to give Gonzalez his 12th win. But Gonzalez's grit put them in the position to do so.

"We really didn't have any length in the bullpen," Baker said. "It was Gio's game."

Nathan Ruiz is a reporter for MLB.com based in San Diego. He covered the Nationals on Sunday.

Washington Nationals