Gio Gonzalez struggled with his command at times and had trouble with his curve early in his first outing off the DL on June 18th. In that start, the 28-year-old lefty, who landed on the Disabled List for the first time in his career when an MRI revealed inflammation in his left shoulder, gave up five hits, three walks and four runs, all earned in five innings of work in which he threw 93 pitches in what ended up a 6-5 Nationals' win over the Houston Astros at home in Washington, D.C.
Nats skipper Matt Williams told reporters after Gonzalez faced the Astros that some of the command issues were expected as the starter knocked the rust off upon returning to the rotation.
"Found his curveball a little bit better late," Williams said, "but command was an issue, but I think for the first time out of the DL it was okay."
The next time out, Gonzalez threw six scoreless innings against the Milwaukee Brewers on the road in Miller Park, giving up three hits and four walks, but no runs in a 3-0 Nats' win. Bench coach Randy Knorr, who took over when Williams was ejected early in the game, was impressed with Gonzalez's work against some impressive Brewers' hitters.
"These guys are tough," Knorr said. "Outside of Colorado, these guys are the best hitting team in the National League. So, [Gonzalez] made pitches when he needed to and to keep these guys off-balance was a pretty good job."
Knorr also noted that Gonzalez seemed to get a feel for his breaking ball in his second start back.
"In the previous two starts his breaking ball was off," Knorr explained. "He really didn't have a feel for it. And the fact that he threw a couple over the plate today, it got his confidence back in it and he was able to throw it a lot more."
Gonzalez's curve was back today, his velocity jumped back to where it sat before the DL stint and he held the Chicago Cubs scoreless through seven innings in a 3-0 win to do his part in helping the Nationals snap a three-game losing streak.
"Today he had his curve ball early too, which is, I think, key for him," Williams said when asked about the southpaw's fairly efficient 99-pitch outing.
"Curveball and changeup command early is key. He had a better fastball too, he touched 94 a few times today, so all in all, really good for him."
Good for Gonzalez, who is now (5-4) with a 3.93 ERA, 3.33 FIP, 29 walks (3.80 BB/9) and 71 Ks (9.31 K/9) in 68 ⅔ IP after he gave up just two hits and two walks while striking out seven, and good for the Nationals, who needed a win.
The 3-0 victory set the Nationals up with a chance to split the four-game set in Chicago while also boosting Gonzalez's confidence.
"It's important for us," Williams said.
"I'm happy for him that he feels good about it. He's had no shoulder issues, so that's a good sign. Velocity has come back. The ability to throw all of his pitches for strikes is huge for him, so pitched really good."
Gonzalez also received some support from his defense. Denard Span, in particular, made two great plays in center field. Span robbed Cubs' outfielder Justin Ruggiano of an extra base hit with a leaping catch at the base of the ivy-covered brick wall in center in the fourth, then, after Gonzalez walked Anthony Rizzo in the next at bat, Span made a charging catch on a fly to short-center off Starlin Castro's bat and doubled Rizzo up when the Cubs' infielder went way too far off first thinking Castro had a hit.
Impressive as Span's plays were, Williams said it's nothing new.
"It's every day," he said. "Look back to the first couple of games, he made a couple plays in each gap to save extra base hits for us. It's gold out there."
The double play, Williams explained, had a high degree of difficulty too, because Span threw on the run immediately after making the catch.
"He's got momentum," the Nats' skipper said, "but still, he doesn't have time to set himself and make a regular throw. But it was right on the money. A little high, but [LaRoche] got his foot back down."
The Nationals scored a run in the sixth to give Gonzalez a lead and then added two late to provide a cushion and get their starter the decision after a strong outing.
"He certainly pitched well," Williams said. "And we were able to scratch one and then open it up a little bit later, so, it's good. We'd rather do it earlier than that, but he pitched really well, kept us in it and kept them in check."