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Washington Nationals flat in series opener: Rays 6-1 in front of 10,000+ in Tampa Bay

Coming off a spectacular outing by Max Scherzer in Milwaukee, the Washington Nationals came out flat against the Rays in the season opener in Tampa Bay, dropping a 6-1 decision. Gio Gonzalez struggled and was out early...

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5. Gio prefers Minute Maid or probably Sunny D: In his first start in the month of June, Nationals' lefty Gio Gonzalez held the Chicago Cubs to two runs on four hits and two walks in six innings of work in a 2-1 loss in which he threw 103 pitches. He went 6 ⅓ last time out, against the New York Yankees in Yankee Stadium, giving up four hits, three walks and two earned runs in another 103-pitch outing and a 5-4 win for the Nats in which he received no decision.

Gonzalez tossed six scoreless innings against the Yankees before Chris Young singled to start the seventh and scored on an RBI triple to center by Brendan Ryan.

"'I feel like I’ve gotten better results than a four-seam fastball. Don’t get me wrong: I still mix in a four-seam fastball. It’s mostly two-seam.'" -Gio Gonzalez on using two-seamer more often in 2015 to Washington Post

Washington's 29-year-old southpaw talked, after inducing nine ground ball outs from the Yankees, which left him with a career-high 56.1% GB% so far this season, about working with his two-seam fastball more this season than he has before and seeing positive results.

"I wanted to work on two-seamers to see what it felt like and then I’ve just been throwing it more often,'" the Nationals' lefty explained to reporters including the Washington Post's James Wagner.

"'I feel like I’ve gotten better results than a four-seam fastball. Don’t get me wrong: I still mix in a four-seam fastball. It’s mostly two-seam. I’ve stuck to it and felt stronger with my two-seam.'"

Gonzalez has thrown his two-seamer 37.8% of the time this season, up from 23.3% last season and a 27.0% career average with his four-seamer down from 41.7% in 2014 to 25.9% so far in 2015 and down from a 39.0% career average.

"'Strikeouts are very nice,'" Gonzalez, (who's struck out 67 in 71 ⅓, for 8.45 K/9, down from 9.19 K/9 on the year last season), told the WaPost reporter. "'Don’t get me wrong. But then again, so are groundball outs and double plays.'"

Tonight in Tropicana Field, Gonzalez got four ground ball outs from the 22 Tampa Bay Rays' hitters he faced in just 3 ⅓ innings before he was lifted...

His outing began with a long first inning in which the Rays loaded the bases on a two, two-out walks around a two-out single, but Gonzalez escaped trouble on a grounder back to the mound off Jake Elmore's bat, on which he bounced a tough throw to first that Danny Espinosa managed to pick. 24-pitch frame.

Rays' center fielder Kevin Kiermaier took advantage of a nonchalant Denard Span in center on a one-out grounder up the middle in the second, running out of the box and taking second base as the Nats' center fielder slowly threw the ball in. Kiermaier stole third with Rene Rivera at the plate, and scored on a sac fly to center to make it 1-0 early. 11-pitch frame, 35 total after two.

Joey Butler took a 2-0 fastball back up the middle for a leadoff single in the Rays' half of the third, and took third base on a single to center by Evan Longoria, who ripped into a hanging 1-1 curve. Logan Forsythe's low liner up the middle caught Gonzalez's heel and bounced into right, bringing Butler in, 2-0, and sending Longoria around to third. Longoria scored on a sac fly by Jake Elmore after Steven Souza took a base-loading walk, 3-0.

Asdrubal Cabrera sent a fly to deep left that Michael Taylor pulled off the top of the fence for out no.2 and Kevin Kiermaier grounded out to second to end a 23-pitch frame. 58 total.

Rene Rivera singled and Brandon Guyer took an 0-2 fastball off the wrist to put two on with no one out in the Rays' fourth. Joey Butler singled by a diving Yunel Escobar at third to load the bases and Evan Longoria's sac fly to center brought Rivera in to make it 4-0, before Logan Forsythe singled to left on a 1-2 change to bring Guyer in to make it 5-0 and end Gio Gonzalez's night.

• Gio Gonzalez's Line: 3.1 IP, 8 H, 5 R, 5 ER, 3 BB, 1 K, 79 P, 44 S, 4/5 GO/FO.

4. Erasmo vs the Nationals: Tampa Bay acquired 25-year-old righty Erasmo Ramirez from the Seattle Mariners who signed him as an amateur free agent in 2007 in a March 31, 2015 trade that sent lefty Mike Montgomery to the M's.

In three seasons in Seattle, Ramirez was (7-12) with a 4.62 ERA, a 4.66 FIP, 72 walks (3.14 BB/9) and 165 Ks (7.19 K/9) in 206 ⅔ IP. In 15 games, eight of them starts this season, the right-hander is (5-2) with a 4.96 ERA, a 3.84 FIP, 18 walks (3.08 BB/9) and 44 Ks (7.52 K/9) in 52 ⅔ IP, over which he's held opposing hitters to a .238/.324/.342 line.

As a starter, the Rivas, Nicagarua-born pitcher earned all five of his wins, while posting a 4.43 ERA, a 3.87 FIP and a .240/.331/.338 line in 40 ⅔ IP.

Ramirez made one start in April, but only moved into the rotation on a regular basis on May 14th, posting a 2.97 ERA in 33 ⅓ IP since then, over which he's held opposing hitters to a combined .202/.298/.570 line.

His first career start against the Washington Nationals tonight, began with a scoreless 22-pitch first which ended when he caught Bryce Harper looking with a low-ish, 3-2 change that home plate ump Jim Reynolds liked.

Clint Robinson walked with one down in the Nats' second, but was stranded at the end of an 18-pitch frame that left Ramirez at 40 total after two.

Given a 1-0 lead to work with, Ramirez gave up a two-out double to right field that Steven Souza misplayed into a two-out hit, then hit Yunel Escobar on the hand with a fastball inside to put two runners on.

Bryce Harper stepped in with two on and two out and walked to load the bases for Wilson Ramos who grounded into a force at second to end a 23-pitch frame. 63 pitches in three innings.

Michael Taylor dropped a two-out single in front of Rays' center fielder Kevin Kiermaier in the Nats' fourth, then stole second, but Ian Desmond sent a fly to the right-center gap for out no.3 of a 13-pitch frame that pushed Ramirez up to 76 pitches.

With the score 5-0 after four, Ramirez gave up a one-out walk to Anthony Rendon and a single by Yunel Escobar that brought Bryce Harper to the plate with two on. Harper hit a flyout to left for out no.2, but Wilson Ramos singled to left to load the bases with two down. Clint Robinson ripped into a first-pitch change, but sent a lineout right to Rays' first baseman Jake Elmore. 17-pitch frame, 93 total.

Ramirez's night ended with a quick, 10-pitch, 1-2-3 sixth that left him at 103 pitches overall.

Erasmo Ramirez's Line: 6.0 IP, 5 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 3 BB, 4 Ks, 103 P, 66 S, 4/4 GO/FO.

3. Souza vs the Nationals: The Washington Nationals drafted Steven Souza in the 3rd Round of the 2007 Draft. Over eight seasons in the Nats' system, the hard-hitting infielder/outfielder put up a .260/.354/.440 line, but it was over the last three seasons that he finally started to really turn it on.

His time in the Nationals' organization ended after a 2014 campaign spent predominantly at Triple-A, which saw him post a .350/.432/.577 line with 25 doubles and 18 HRs in 96 games and 407 plate appearances between trips to the majors where he debuted in early April.

"For Steven, he's ready. He's a big leaguer. He's proven everything he can prove." - Matt Williams on Steven Souza, Jr., Dec. 2014

After the season, however, and after he was named the Nationals' Minor League Player of the Year, Souza was dealt to Tampa Bay in the three-team, eleven-player deal that netted both right-hander Joe Ross and infielder Trea Turner.

Before the start of his first series against the franchise that drafted and developed him, even giving him a second chance after he walked away from the game for a time, Souza said he has nothing but good feelings.

"'I love and respect that organization with the highest esteem,'" Souza told reporters, including Tampa Bay Times' writer Joey Knight.

"'They basically gave me my chance, so I hold that in high regard in that aspect, but … if it was my brother or sister, I'd still want to go beat their tails off."

He's made a good impression early in his first season with the Rays. Heading into the first game of two in Tropicana Field, Souza leads the Rays and American League rookies with 12 HRs and 29 RBIs, and as the Rays' game notes mentioned, "he's on pace for a club-rookie-record" 30 HRs. He was also just one of three major leaguers (along with Mike Trout and Justin Upton) to lead his own team in HRs and stolen bases (12).

In his first game against the Nationals, Souza stepped in for the first time with two on and two out in the bottom of the first against Gio Gonzalez and took a full-count fastball inside for a base-loading walk.

There were runners on the corners with no one out in Souza's second at bat in the third, and he took walk no.2 to load the bases again.

At bat no.3 in the fourth came with one out and runners on second and third and Taylor Hill on the mound. After a double steal, Souza took his third walk of the game. 0 for 0, 3 BB.

Souza led off the sixth with his fourth walk of the game. 0 for 0, 4 walks.

In the eighth? You guessed it. Walk. 0 for 0, 5 walks.

• Sure Souza's good... but MAT!:

2. Turning Point(s): Denard Span, who's always hustling, didn't on a one-out grounder to center by his counterpart on the Rays, Kevin Kiermaier, so the speedy Tampa Bay outfielder took a second base ahead of Span's weak throw in. Kiermaier stole third when Gio Gonzalez failed to check him in the next at bat, then scored on a sac fly to make it 1-0 early for the home team in the Trop.

• Three straight hits up the middle in the bottom of the third led to the Rays' second run scoring and Gonzalez's second walk of the night to one-time National Steven Souza loaded the bases with no one out. 2-0. A sac fly to center by Jake Elmore brought in run no.3, 3-0.

• The Rays loaded the bases for the third time in four innings and scored two more in the bottom of the fourth, knocking Gio Gonzalez out in the process and taking a 5-0 lead...

1. The Wrap-Up: Taylor Hill took over for Gio Gonzalez in the fourth with runners on first and second, who were on second and third in a hurry after a double steal. A walk to Steven Souza loaded the bases for Jake Elmore, and the Rays' first baseman... lined out to short. Two down. Asdrubal Cabrera's swinging K ended the frame. 5-0 Rays.

Hill came back out for the sixth and gave up a leadoff double by Kevin Kiermaier that bounced off the first base bag and by Danny Espinosa. Brandon Guyer's RBI triple to center made it 6-0 Rays.

A walk to Joey Butler and a HBP on Evan Longoria loaded the bases with one out, knocking Longoria out in the process. Logan Forsythe sent a grounder to third, however, starting an inning-ending 5-4-3.

Hill walked Steven Souza and gave up a single by Jake Elmore in the first two at bats of the Rays' sixth, but he stranded them both.

Rays' lefty C.J. Riefenhauser took over on the mound in the top of the seventh, and worked around a leadoff walk to Denard Span for a scoreless frame. Hill retired the side in order in the bottom of the inning.

Enny Romero threw a 1-2-3 eighth for the Rays. David Carpenter worked around the fifth walk of the game to Steven Souza for a scoreless frame in the eighth.

Michael Taylor walked in the first at bat of the ninth and Dan Uggla singled one out later off former Nats' lefty Xavier Cedeno. Anthony Rendon lined a single to left to load the bases and Yunel Escobar connected for the third straight hit, a line drive to center that brought Taylor in, 6-1. Bryce Harper? Lined out to first, and Rendon was dead to rights off second. Double play.

6-1 Rays final.

Nationals now 33-31