Gio Gonzalez improves with aggressiveness

On Thursday, Gio Gonzalez delivered the performance that not only he sorely needed but that Nationals, too. He ended a Nationals four-game losing streak, pitched a game reminiscent of his stellar 2012 season after an inconsistent start to this year, kept the ball from the bullpen save for one inning and held down the potent Cincinnati Reds offense enough for his team’s own bats to finally come to life.

Gonzalez succeeded by — and this sounds so painfully obvious and simple — throwing strikes. He fired 112 pitches, 78 for strikes, over eight innings, by far his highest percentage of strikes thrown this season. He threw first-pitch strikes to 22 of 27 batters. He threw his highest percentage of fastballs of the season (79 percent), used his curveball mainly in two-strike counts and didn’t fire a single change-up. “My theory is that a well-located fastball is always the toughest pitch to hit, especially when it’s coming in in the mid-90s, it’s tough,” Kurt Suzuki said.

From the beginning to the end of the at-bats, save for the two walks to the catcher, Gonzalez fired strikes. Just like Stephen Strasburg’s own struggles with that first pitch, the Nationals have urged Gonzalez to do it more. Their stuff is lively and wicked enough to survive on its own in the strike zone without being caressed finely to the corners or near the strike zone.

“That’s the thing with Gio,” Suzuki said. “When he starts thinking about what he’s trying to do or hoping the hitter doesn’t do this or that, that’s when starts falling into trouble. Today was just get the ball and go. He was rock-and-fire. That’s what Gio needs to do. That’s what Gio does. And when he does that, he’s successful most times out of not because his stuff is that good.”

Three of the five hitters that Gonzalez started off with balls reached base. Devin Mesoraco, the Reds catcher and eight-hole hitter, drew two walks and Joey Votto, who drilled a solo home run just over the left field fence on a 2-2 pitch in the fourth inning.

“You try to attack the strike zone quick and especially with a team like that, you don’t want to give them a chance and fall behind on them and let them swing it,” Gonzalez said. “That’s what happened with Votto and that’s exactly what he did.”

Even with Thursday’s performance, Gonzalez ranks 76th in the majors with 59 percent first-pitch strikes thrown, an obvious area of continued improvement. Before his start, Gonzalez led the majors in pitches per plate appearance but dropped to third (4.30 pitches per plate appearance) with his most efficient performance of the season. When Gonzalez wavers, he tries to fire the perfect pitch. Suzuki often reminds Gonzalez that his stuff is dominant enough to be thrown over the plate.

“He’s got great stuff, and if you try to get too fine … his ball moves a heck of a lot and it’s hard to center on,” Manager Davey Johnson said. “But it’s a lot easier to center on if you see a bunch of pitches every at-bat. … He had 112 pitches after eight innings. I mean, he’s about had that in five (innings) the last couple starts. … And that’s what (Stephen Strasburg) did after the first inning his last start. Going after them, and you get much more pitch efficient and you can go much longer in the ballgame. But main thing is, when hitters see less pitches, it’s harder to center on the ball.”

FROM THE POST

The Nationals offense breaks out and Gio Gonzalez delivers his finest performance of the season, 8-1.

It’s too soon to panic but it’s fine to be concerned, writes Mike Wise.

FROM YESTERDAY’S JOURNAL

Nationals officially exercise Mike Rizzo’s option for 2014

Wilson Ramos to rehab with Harrisburg on Friday; Ryan Zimmerman running

Davey Johnson tweaks the lineup again looking for any spark

Nationals-Reds lineups

The early struggles of the Nationals bench

Is there hope for the Nationals offense?

NATS MINOR LEAGUES

Rochester 10, Syracuse 7: Starter Yunesky Maya allowed seven runs on 10 hits over 5 1/3 innings and walked to batters. Over 1 2/3 innings, J.C. Romero allowed his first earned run of the season on two hits and a walk, and suffered the loss. Jeff Kobernus went 2 for 5 and Will Rhymes went 2 for 4. Chris Rahl drove in two runs, and Zach Walters and Jimmy Van Ostrand each added one.

Harrisburg was off.

Carolina 4, Potomac 1: Starter Taylor Hill allowed four runs, two earned, on eight hits and struck out one over five innings. Michael Taylor and Adrian Nieto each went 2 for 4. Taylor smashed a solo home run, the team’s sole run.

Augusta 3, Hagerstown 2: Starter Pedro Encarnacion allowed three runs, none of them earned, on five hits over 3 1/3 innings. Relievers Travis Henke and Cody Davis pitched a combined 3 2/3 hitless and scoreless innings. Shawn Pleffner went 2 for 3 with two doubles and two RBI.

James Wagner joined the Post in August 2010 and, prior to covering the Nationals, covered high school sports across the region.
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James Wagner · April 25, 2013