With the Washington Nationals in need of another solid outing as they fight to stay alive in the NL East, 29-year-old lefty Gio Gonzalez threw six scoreless innings against the Atlanta Braves on Saturday night, taking a no-hit bid into the sixth before Nick Markakis lined a single to center for the visiting team's first hit.
The Braves stranded two runners in the first, after Gonzalez issued back-to-back, one-out walks to Pedro Ciriaco and Freddie Freeman, but the left-hander settled in and retired the next eleven batters he faced before he issued a walk to Andrelton Simmons in the first at bat of the fifth.
Simmons was stranded too, however, when Gonzalez set the next three batters down, completing five scoreless on just 76 pitches.
He ran into trouble in the sixth though.
After the Markakis' single, Gonzalez struck Freeman out for the second time in three at bats, but Nick Swisher singled for the Braves' second hit and Michael Bourn took the fourth walk the Nats' starter issued, loading the bases with two down.
A groundout to short from Simmons ended the threat and Gonzalez's start after a 30-pitch frame that pushed him up to 106 pitches.
"I just thought he commanded the strike zone well today," Nats' skipper Matt Williams said, after what ended up an 8-2 win in which Gonzalez struck out ten, a season high.
"Threw some good breaking balls to strike guys out too. Hard breaking balls down and in to the righties with two strikes [were] effective for him too.
"Managed pitch counts innings two through four and he was able to get through six for us. I think it was really good.
"He had a couple of walks interspersed in there, but for the most part in command."
During his run through the middle innings, and the eleven straight outs, Gonzalez recorded eight Ks, a result, he said, of being in sync with Nationals' backstop Wilson Ramos.
"It's just being on the same page with your catcher," Gonzalez explained. "I mean it helps out a lot. Especially with [Ramos] just wanting to be aggressive today.
"He was telling me yesterday and he was telling me today, 'Let's go, let's pound the strike zone.'
"Before the game I also told [pitching coach Steve McCatty], 'I trust Willy's game, and I'm going to follow his program and it worked.' He knows what he's doing back there and he's caught some great games."
The strikeouts of Freeman, (who started the night 16 for 30 (.533/.588/.767) with seven doubles, four walks and three Ks in eight games against the Nationals this season and 102 for 296 (.345/.398/.527) with 25 doubles, nine homers, 25 walks and 60 Ks in 81 games and 332 PAs against Washington in his career), were particularly impressive to Williams.
"I just think that the first strikeout was a changeup," Gonzalez's manager said.
"Lefty vs lefty changeups you don't see very often. He was on the fastball, fouled a couple of them off, and got to 3-2 and threw him a changeup and then he got him again with well-placed fastball."
"I just think Gio was aggressive and throwing the ball over the plate," Williams said.
Gonzalez escaped trouble in the first and sixth and avoided a big inning while the Nationals gave him all the support he would need in a four-run third and added to their lead along the way.
"He got out of the last inning with a ground ball to short," Williams said, "and again if he loses him there we may go get him, but he worked out of it. So good for him."
"I mean, to be honest with you, the first inning just -- I got out of it," Gonzalez told reporters.
"There's nothing much I can say about that first inning. We can talk about the sixth inning -- I got out of it.
"So, at the end of the day, I think that the big topic was the offense looked great. Everyone was swinging the ball from 1-8, I can't speak for the nine-hole."