The previous two nights had left the Nationals in the hands of Gio Gonzalez, and he delivered with one of the most memorable nights of his career. In the Nationals’4-3 victory, their third straight harrowing win over hapless Houston, Gonzalez pitched the first nine-inning complete game of his career and paced the offense with his first major league home run, a two-run blast in the second inning that put the Nationals ahead to stay.
“Today, it was like a Little League game for Gio,” Clippard said. “Hits the two-run homer, we win by one and he throws a complete game. That’s like Williamsport Little League stuff. It’s awesome. What a day for him.”
Extra innings had sucked the life of out the Nationals’ relievers, who threw a combined 10 2/3 innings over the previous two nights. Both Clippard and Drew Storen were unavailable. Edwin Jackson, Tuesday’s starter, joined the bullpen in case of emergency.
Manager Davey Johnson did not know for certain who he would use as his closer. He lifted any pitch restriction from Gonzalez, then mulled altering his beta-blocker intake. “I may double up,” Johnson said before the game. He still couldn’t relax, but Gonzalez gave the bullpen a night off.
“It was imperative,” Johnson said. “Just a great outing by Gio to save the bullpen.”
Gonzalez allowed two runs on six hits and two walks. Captain Hook, Johnson’s self-named, quick-pull alter ego, stayed in the dugout.
“It was huge,” Clippard said of Gonzalez’s effort. “I can’t really express the need for that.”
Gonzalez ended his night giving a television interview on the field, where Jackson smeared a shaving cream pie in his face. He had thrown to Kurt Suzuki, his old catcher with the A’s, just acquired in a trade. He had pitched an eight-inning complete before — for the Oakland Athletics in a loss on Aug. 1, 2010 — but never a full one, and his first came on the night he hit a homer.
“It means a lot,” Gonzalez said. “It’s the first time in my career going nine innings like that. In a different league, also getting a home run. Today is just one of those where you smile about it. But tomorrow is a new day.”
The ninth inning nearly scuttled Gonzalez’s accomplishment. He walked to the mound with a two-run lead. The Astros scored one run on an RBI single by Ben Francisco. Jose Alutve followed with a single to center. Pinch-runner Brian Bogusevic tried going from first to third on the play, and Bryce Harper fired to third. The ball bounded past Ryan Zimmerman and headed toward the dugout. Gonzalez dove to stop it before it rolled in, keeping Bogusevic at third and the Nationals ahead.
Johnson faulted Harper for an ill-advised throw, and he said he planned on giving the rookie a day off Thursday. Johnson sensed Harper took his frustration over two looking strikeouts on controversial calls by home plate umpire Angel Hernandez into the field, and he wanted him to take a day to relax.
“There were some questionable pitches, but he’s pressing a little bit,” Johnson said. “I think I’m going to give him a day off tomorrow. I thought that overthrow was a little frustration. We put him in some situations that he likes to be in, and he didn’t have good ABs, so we’ll let him step back a little bit.”
With the winning run on second, Gonzalez got Matt Downs to swing at a curveball in the dirt. He watched Suzuki block the ball and fire a low throw to Adam LaRoche at first. With his seventh strikeout of the game and 117th pitch, Gonzalez had captured his complete game.
“Once we kind of got in the flow a little bit, it was comfortable,” Suzuki said. “It was a nice feeling catching somebody I was familiar with. Same old Gio. Good movement, a lot better command and composure on the mound.”
The Nationals stretched the best record in the major leagues to 68-43, two full games better than the second-best Cincinnati Reds. The Nationals still let the Astros hang around more than necessary, going 1 for 12 with runners on scoring position.
Gonzalez provided most of the Nationals’ offense. In the second, Galarraga got two quick outs and then hit Suzuki with a pitch, bringing up Gonzalez. “I was like, ‘Come on, Gio,’ ” Suzuki said.
Gonzalez started the season belting balls to the warning track, and in the Nationals’ home opener he smacked a double to the wall. He had pleaded incompetence as a hitter when he joined the Nationals from the American League, and it first it seemed he was sandbagging. Then it became clear he was telling the truth. He came to the plate on Wednesday batting .103 this season, two for his last 27 with 12 strikeouts.
Galarraga fired Gonzalez a first-pitch sinker, inside and letter-high, at 87 mph. Gonzalez launched it to left field. There was no doubt from the instant it rocketed off his bat. The drive nearly cleared the seats above the scoreboard in left field. Gonzalez had joined Stephen Strasburg and Jordan Zimmermann as Nationals starters to hit their first career homer this season.
“You’re going to run into one of those,” Gonzalez said. “I just got a pitch up the air.”
Gonzalez looked into the dugout as he rounded second base, but managed to conceal a grin. The Nationals lined up at the dugout steps to congratulate him, Strasburg smiling widest of them all. Someone tossed a bucket of wrapped bubblegum on him. Chad Tracy squeezed Gonzalez’s helmet with two hands and pulled it off.
Gonzalez took more pride in his pitching, a performance his team so desperately needed.
“You definitely want to give the bullpen a chance to come back and get a break,” Gonzalez said. “These guys have been working hard for us. It’s the only right way to go out there and give them a chance to regroup, cool their jets and come back tomorrow.”