Gio Gonzalez shakes off rust in return from the DL

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Almost a month to the day since he last started a major league game, Gio Gonzalez was back on a big league team Wednesday night. After missing 27 games with left shoulder inflammation, Gonzalez threw five innings against the Houston Astros.

Gonzalez allowed four runs on five hits. His command wasn’t sharp; he threw a first-pitch strike to only 12 of the 22 batters he faced. There was a mix of good — six strikeouts and good reports on his shoulder — and not so good – three walks, a hit batter and the runs.

“Not my strongest outing but it was definitely a step to the right direction,” Gonzalez said after the Nationals’ comeback 6-5 win. “I’m back off the DL, which is a great sign. First three innings was trying to get the arm on top. And the fourth inning I tried to get ahead of the hitters but couldn’t put them away. Walking a guy and hitting a guy will definitely start something. It’s something to learn from. Dust the cobwebs off a little bit and get back at it. It’s definitely a work in progress.”

Gonzalez’s early innings offered promise. Manager Matt Williams said he would know Gonzalez had returned at full strength if he could “drive the ball to his glove side” — if he could fire fastballs past hitters over the right edge of the plate. In the second inning, Gonzalez had two strikes on left-handed hitting catcher Jason Castro. Gonzalez froze him with a 93-mph fastball over the outside corner, exactly the pitch Williams hoped he would see, for strike three. His control, however, would still prove to be a work in progress.

“He found his curveball a little bit better late, but command was an issue,” Williams said. “I think for the first time off the DL, it was OK.”

Gonzalez’s troubles all reared their head in the four-run fourth inning. He walked Jose Altuve after a tough 11-pitch battle. He tried to pitch in on George Springer, missed and hit him. He loaded the bases by allowing a single to Jon Singleton. He fell behind 2-0 to Matt Dominguez and then coughed up a two-run single. A fastball over the middle of the plate to Castro led to an RBI double. A 1-0 change-up to Jonathan Villar resulted in a sac fly and a 4-0 Astros lead. Gonzalez finally escaped the inning with a flyout and strikeout.

Despite a pitch count at 77 and close monitoring in his first game back from injury, Gonzalez was allowed to pitch the fifth inning. It allowed him a chance to make needed adjustments. Gonzalez used 16 pitches, pitched around a leadoff single and finished with a pitch count at 93.

“That fifth inning made me feel confident again and gave me the boost of confidence that I needed,” he said.

Gonzalez’s shoulder landed him on the disabled list on May 18 for the first time in his seven-year career. He rested and built his stamina back up again. He reported no shoulder discomfort during his two minor league rehab starts. After Wednesday’s start, he reiterated his belief that he is past his shoulder issue.

“I’m very confident,” he said. “I’m ready to go, keep pitching and keep moving forward. I’m happy to be with this rotation that is going to constantly keep me moving forward and positive.”

“I think he felt fine, which is the most important thing,” Williams added. “He wanted to go out for one more inning, but we couldn’t let him do that. So, I think overall his health is good.”

Being out for a month leads to rust and it takes time to regain mechanics, but Gonzalez insisted that shouldn’t be an excuse. He knows he needs to improve at putting batters away and limiting walks, issues that are not new.

“I think what it is is finishing what I started,” he said. “Getting ahead of the guys and making sure to put them away early. Can’t fall behind guys, especially when you got them 1-2 counts, 0-2 and giving them a chance to come back. Hitting the guy and walking the guy ahead of the count is something that needs to stop. As a professional pitcher as I like to look at myself, I gotta do better at that.”

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NATS MINOR LEAGUES

Syracuse 3, Norfolk 0: Aaron Laffey fired seven scoreless inning, gave up only five hits and walk two batters. Michael Gonzalez, Daniel Stange and Warner Madrigal combined for two scoreless innings. Brandon Laird hit a two-run shot. Brock Peterson drove in the other run.

New Britain 5, Harrisburg 4: Zach Kroenke allowed two runs on seven hits, walked three and struck out three over 5 1/3 innings. Robert Benincasa blew the save by allowing two runs in the ninth. Michael A. Taylor hit his 17th home run. Matt Skole hit his seventh home run. Kevin Keyes added two hits.

Harrisburg was off.

Hagerstown was off.

Auburn was postponed.

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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