Unbeaten in his last four outings, with a 0.96 ERA, seven walks (2.25 BB/9), 23 Ks (7.39 K/9), and a .156/.229/.208 line against in 28 innings over that stretch, Gio Gonzalez took the mound in Petco Park on Sunday afternoon looking to continue a strong run which saw him give up just one earned run in his last three starts (3-0, 0.43 ERA).
Gonzalez took a no-hit bid into the sixth inning in his last start before facing San Diego, but gave up two hits in what ended up his final inning of work in a 3-1 win over the LA Angels in the nation’s capital.
He needed just 91 pitches to get through six fairly efficient innings against the Angels, which ended up being important.
Gonzalez gave up back-to-back, one-out hits in the first inning against the Padres, but got a fly to right for out No. 2, and a grounder to short that should have ended the early threat, but Wilmer Difo rushed the throw and fired it wide for an E:6 that allowed the first run of the game to score, 1-0.
Gonzalez scored the tying run himself on a sac fly in the top of the third, after he took a leadoff walk from Padres’ righty Dinelson Lamet, and he completed three innings on 62 pitches after throwing 32 in the long first.
The Nationals scored two in the fifth to jump out to a 3-1 lead, and Gonzalez kept the Padres off the board after the first, completing five innings on 97 pitches.
An eight-pitch, 1-2-3 sixth inning left him at 105 pitches in what would have been a solid outing.
Nationals’ skipper Dusty Baker sent Gonzalez came back out for the seventh, however, and the lefty struck out two more Padres before a two-out single ended his outing.
Gio Gonzalez’s Line: 6.2 IP, 5 H, 1 R, 0 ER, 1 BB, 8 Ks, 121 P, 74 S, 6/7 GO/FO.
Joe Blanton got the final out of the seventh, then Brandon Kintzler and Sean Doolittle finished the Padres off in what ended up a 4-1 win.
Baker explained after the game that he had to lean on Gonzalez because there were four relievers in the bullpen who were unavailable, so he was lucky that even though things were rough at the start for the left-hander, he got stronger as the game went on.
“We needed him to get strong,” Baker said. “Didn’t start out well because we didn’t play very good ‘D’ earlier, and we needed — that’s why we took him so long cause I think he had  pitches his last start, so we took him a little longer this time because I didn’t have four guys in the bullpen.”
Gonzalez told reporters, as quoted by MASN’s Mark Zuckerman, that he knew what the situation was and what Baker needed from him.
“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. Those guys have been working hard for us, so I don’t mind going up and keep throwing.”
“Each guy had gone like two days in a row,” Baker explained, “so we were down to kind of like a four-man bullpen, then Joe came in, got him out of trouble then Kintzler and Doolittle did the rest, but I tell you that was big.
“He took one for the team, we needed him to go as deep as he did, because we were like, okay, we were thinking about it in the fifth and the sixth, but we needed some innings, we couldn’t fill those innings, so that was an outstanding performance by Gio.”
The veteran skipper kept a close eye on his starter and went with him as long as he could.
How did he determine Gonzalez was capable of giving him the length that he needed?
“How he’s looking, how they’re adjusting to him the third and fourth time around, and also the fact, like I said, he went  pitches last time, so we figured we could take him a little longer this time, and we needed him to go longer,” Baker said.
“We didn’t have four guys in the bullpen,” he reiterated, “and we really didn’t have any length in the bullpen, so it was Gio’s game.”