(Kathy Willens/AP)

“There’s certain times when you have to hold your smile, hold your pride,” Gonzalez said. “This situation, the way I looked at it, I’m glad that it happened now and not during the season. The reason why I was smiling was because there was a lot of things I picked up, back then, I never would have picked up. I would have never thought the way I’m thinking now.”

Gonzalez brushed aside his horrendous start, which came in a 9-0 Nationals loss. When he reached the dugout, he told Manager Davey Johnson, “I needed to get that one out of the way down here.” Afterward, he called it, “a step in the right direction for me.”

Gonzalez threw 85 pitches, 50 of them strikes, and his stamina improved over his last start, when he said he felt tired. “I felt my arm was alive,” Gonzalez said. “I felt strong. I felt like I could have kept going.”

Even if his arm feels good, Gonzalez may be experiencing a typical spring training “dead arm” period. In the bullpen, Gonzalez could not bring his pitches down. Before today, Gonzalez had allowed only one run in 10 1/3 innings. “There’s probably no doubt,” Johnson said. “He’s been much better than I expected for somebody who throws as hard as he does.”

The Cardinals came out aggressive at Gonzalez, which took him off guard. Johnson wondered if, perhaps, Gonzalez had given away his pitches.

“They got pieces of pretty good breaking balls,” Johnson said. “I’ll have to look at film, see if he’s tipping or something like that.”

Gonzalez took several lessons from it. Coming over to the American League, Gonzalez is still adjusting to hitting and the need to get up out of the dugout between innings on the mound. Batting right-handed, he struck out swinging in his first at-bat, but fouled away a couple pitches from Jaime Garcia.

“That up-and-down process kind of takes a little bit off of you,” Gonzalez said. “You start realizing, man, I’m going to be doing this a lot. I think personally, there’s things I want to go back and work on. I want to try certain things that could probably work. At the same time, I’m not going to overload on today and the thinking process. It’s just one of those days. You move forward. It happened. It’s done. What I left behind was on the mound, and that’s it.”

Gonzalez also believed he needed better pitch selection and location. He wanted to sit down with catcher Wilson Ramos and go back over the Cardinals lineup, trying to learn their tendencies, especially the most aggressive hitters. He gave the Cardinals credit for hitting several good pitches.

“You can’t do nothing about it,” Gonzalez said, “but continue to smile and chug along.”