Early in the series opener with the Royals in Kansas City's Kauffman Stadium it seemed like the Gio Gonzalez of old might have returned.
Gonzalez's pitch count was high, with 28 pitches in the first inning and 60 total after three, but the Nationals' lone left-handed starter settled in and finished the night at 102 pitches total over six scoreless innings in what ended up a 2-0 win for Washington over the defending World Series champs.
Whereas in the past he might have shown his frustration when things got tough, Gonzalez was a picture of calm again in Kansas City, in spite of the fact that he had runners on in each of the first three innings and had a quickly escalating pitch count that threatened to make it a brief outing.
Dusty Baker stuck with the lefty, however, and Gonzalez settled in and kept the Royals off the board, working around the runners that did reach base and limiting the Royals to four hits and two walks in his six innings of work.
Gonzalez said afterwards that it helped to know that his manager had his back and was willing to let him work through his early issues.
"It’s crazy how it is when a manager lets you pitch more than three innings," Gonzalez told reporters, including MASN's Mark Zuckerman, "when your manager believes in you so much."
"I’m just happy to see has all the confidence in the world to let me pitch. I’ve been doing this for quite a while. I’m just grateful that he believes in me every inning and he lets me go out there and become the pitcher I am. I’m glad he’s giving me a little more rope."
"We just had to get him out of the first couple innings," Baker explained, "because he had rather high pitch counts, that's why he couldn't go much further than the sixth.
"We were hoping to take him to the seventh, because that's the bridge inning, right there, but [Sammy] Solis came in and bridged that for us today and it will be somebody else hopefully tomorrow."
Baker has talked previously about Gonzalez's improved mental approach. It came up again last night. Baker said he wasn't here to see how things went in previous seasons, but he likes what he's seen thus far this year.
"The mental side, only he can talk about that. Like I said, I wasn't here, but we've tried to help him with that as much as we can. I see Anthony [Rendon] going over to calm him down when he gets in trouble and once you start something rolling you can build on it and build on it, then it make it easier the next time when you get in trouble knowing that you can get out of trouble. He certainly has had the stuff."
"The mental side of the game is big," Baker added. "Most people just see the physical side of things, but it's the mental that controls the physical and if you can get into that state of mind then half the victory is already won there."
After Gonzalez and Solis, Shawn Kelley and Oliver Perez combined for a scoreless eighth and Jonathan Papelbon handled the ninth as the Nationals shut the Royals out and won their fourth straight game overall.
In spite of the fact that the Royals' pitchers held the Nationals off the board after the first, the 2-0 lead the Nats had after one held up and they took the series opener in Kansas City.
"Gio was -- I mean, he was great," Baker said. "He made some pitches when he had to, when he was in trouble there.
"He dug deep and he got the fly balls when he needed them. And our bullpen was outstanding. Kelley made a great pitch on [Lorenzo] Cain when he needed to.
"Boy, I was getting a little worried cause we left those men out there, because a lot of time they come back to haunt you, but it didn't today.
"We beat a very good club over there with outstanding pitching and we've just got to keep rolling."