PHILADELPHIA — Cliff Lee has been there. He pulverizes the strike zone, owns a Cy Young award and has taken entire Octobers hostage. Crucial to his success has been his ability to keep the ball on the right side of the fence. Over the span of his career, Lee has allowed less than one homer per nine innings.
Gio Gonzalez is getting there. He tries for, and frequently executes, perfect pitches. He has made two all-star teams. He often thrives on, but occasionally succumbs to, his emotion. At times among the most electric pitchers in baseball, Gonzalez possesses the ability to be the kind of starter that Lee has been for years, an ace his team leans on at pivotal moments.
In their 5-1 victory Wednesday night over the Philadelphia Phillies, the Washington Nationals upended Lee with an uncommon barrage, and Gonzalez delivered one of his most essential starts in a Nationals uniform. Gonzalez earned his fourth straight win with seven dominant innings, allowing only one run on six hits as his ERA shrunk to 3.03 and the Nationals’ losing skid halted before it could grow past two games.
“I had to prepare myself today that it was going to be a low-scoring game,” Gonzalez said. “It’s good to see your team go out there and battle and do what you did.”
In his first 135 2 / 3 innings this season, Lee had surrendered only nine home runs. And then he gave up four in a span of eight batters, spasms of back-to-back homers in two straight innings. Anthony Rendon and Wilson Ramos smashed consecutive home runs in the fifth, and then Ryan Zimmerman and Jayson Werth did the same in the sixth.
Gonzalez responded by starting the game with six scoreless innings, then yielded a solo homer to Darin Ruf in the seventh, only after the Nationals had emptied their barrels on Lee. He struck out five, walked two and continued to validate his maiden season in Washington.
“For me,” Ramos said, “He’s the same guy every time.”
Lee entered Wednesday night 10-2 with a 2.73 ERA, and he had dominated the Nationals in their meeting earlier in the year. The Nationals entered with the lowest batting average in the majors against left-handed pitchers.
Manager Davey Johnson, though, trusted a different omen: He liked the way the Nationals took batting practice. Lee pummels the inside of the strike zone, and Johnson wanted to counter Lee’s aggression with more aggression. In the late afternoon, they attacked pitches.
“There’s a big difference,” Johnson said. “Sometimes, we come into batting practice and we look like we try to hit everything to right field. Today, we were hitting it on the rooftops. We knew who was out there.”
After Lee’s first 58 pitches Wednesday night, the Nationals had taken eight balls and swatted four solo home runs. By the end of the night, Lee had thrown 64 strikes in 76 pitches, the second-highest percentage of any starter since 2000.
“We attack early, and that’s the point — we have to do it every time,” Ramos said. “Those pitchers like that, they’re aggressive with us. We have to be aggressive with them.”
For the first four innings, Lee and Gonzalez traded zeroes. Gonzalez used two double plays, and Lee buzzed through the Nationals with an onslaught of strikes. Lee’s delivery hides the ball, and his sneaky fastball often leaves batters startled. By the time they decide they want to hack at an appetizing heater, it often has already bored into the catcher’s mitt.
Leading off the fifth, Lee started Rendon with two strikes and fired one of those searing fastballs at 93 mph, headed for the inside corner. With impossibly quick wrists, Rendon whipped the head of his bat and clobbered the ball. It sizzled over the fence and drilled an unlucky fan in the first row smack dab in the left eye.
“He’s just got good hands,” Johnson said. “They’ve been pounding him in. He knows what they’re trying to do. He’s no dummy. And he was working on getting that head out.
Said Rendon: “I just try to get the barrel to it. Don’t think in baseball. It messes you up.”
Lee tried to recover against Ramos. He threw a ball and then another fastball over the plate. Ramos crushed it to right field and started trotting. In his first 20 at-bats since coming off the disabled list, Ramos has smacked nine hits, including two homers and two doubles, to go with 10 RBI.
When Zimmerman walked to the plate in the sixth, Lee had struck him out twice already. All series, Phillies pitchers had pounded Zimmerman with high-and-inside fastballs. Lee jumped ahead, 0-2, and tried it again.
“They finally missed and kind of left one out over the plate,” Zimmerman said.
Zimmerman destroyed it over the left-center field fence, putting the Nationals ahead, 3-0.
Up came Werth, whom Lee started with a cutter. Werth drove it to left for his 10th homer. Frequent injury has obscured Werth’s impact, but recently he has been elite. In his past 24 games, Werth is hitting .373 with five homers and 13 walks.
“He’s been 100 percent in, as he usually is,” Johnson said “But he’s been really focused. He loves to play here. This gears him up.”
Before Gonzalez left, he passed a final hurdle. He surrendered two two-out singles in the seventh. He went to a 2-2 count on Ben Revere as his pitch count climbed and the bullpen stirred. On Gonzalez’s 116th pitch, Revere lined to left. Bryce Harper backpedaled and made the catch.
Since May began, Gonzalez has a 2.18 ERA over 13 starts. He has been every bit as dominant as his first season in Washington, when he won 21 games and finished third in the Cy Young vote. Wednesday night, as he walked off the field, Gonzalez grinned.
“I made a mistake pitch,” Gonzalez said. “That’s all you can smile about, instead of getting mad and yelling into your glove. You might as well just smile about it.”
Nationals notes: Reliever Ryan Mattheus has been facing live hitters at the Nationals spring training facility in Viera, Fla. and will soon start a rehab assignment. Mattheus has been on the disabled list since May 20, when he broke his right (throwing) hand punching his locker.. . . .
Having missed the whole season with a partially torn forearm tendon and shoulder stiffness, reliever Christian Garcia suffered another setback and received an MRI exam on his hamstring. His last rehab appearance at Class AAA Syracuse came Sunday. . . .
Current No. 5 starter Taylor Jordan will be on an innings limit, General Manager Mike Rizzo said. The Nationals have “general parameters” for regulating Jordan’s innings, Rizzo said, not a strict number. Last season, Jordan threw only 541 / 3 innings at minor league affiliates in his first season back from Tommy John surgery. Between the majors and minors this year, Jordan has already thrown 106 innings.