Jonathan Newton/TWP

Gio Gonzalez made his final tune-up today before he departs for the World Baseball Classic, a smooth, scoreless three innings against the Astros in what became a 4-2 Nationals loss. Gonzalez allowed three hits, struck out three and walked one as he threw 42 pitches, 27 of them strikes.

The Nationals limited Gonzalez to 50 pitches to comply with WBC rules, and afterward Gonzalez threw 23 extra pitches in the bullpen to build up his arm. He mixed in more change-ups and curves than in his first two starts, and he came away feeling prepared to start March 12 in Miami, presuming Team USA reaches the second round.

“I felt good,” Gonzalez said. “Three innings, still working on stuff. I felt I was building more strength as the innings went along, finally picking up my target. Finished off in the bullpen, trying to still get that groove again. But other than that, I felt good.”

Gonzalez had better command of his fastball today than in any previous start. He needed only 13 pitches to navigate the first, escaping a two-on, one-out jam after a Chris Carter double. Gonzalez breezed through the second in eight pitches. He made more work for himself in the third when he walked the leadoff hitter, but he quickly settled down and found the strike zone. He ended his day by getting Carter to swing through a nasty, backdoor sinker.

“He’s ready,” Manager Davey Johnson said. “He’ll be fine on the 12th. It was a good day for him.”

>>> As the Nationals stretched before today’s game, a familiar face wandered over. Rick Ankiel, now playing for the Astros, at this moment bypassed his former teammates for a kindred spirit. He wrapped his arms around Micah Owings and yelled, “‘Bout time!”

Owings, like Ankiel famously did before him, is making the transition from pitcher to position player. Owings has been limited this spring by a sore wrist, but today Owings played outfield for the first time and went 0 for 1. He jogged out to left for the first time in the seventh inning, and naturally the very first ball hit was a screaming liner right at him. He caught it.

“First one, huh?” he said. “That was fun. It got my heart pumping a little bit.”

Owings has been working at both first, with which he has more experience, and the outfield. He played some first base on a rehab assignment with the Padres. He played only a few games of outfield in college, and then a couple more this winter in Puerto Rico.

“I feel like I’m just really focused on tracking the ball,” Owings said. “I take some pointers from these guys. I’m not trying to over-think it and just play.”

As Johnson plans to play his regulars more, Owings may get squeezed out of at-bats – and if anyone needs at-bats, it’s him as he tries to become a full-time hitter. It seems likely that Johnson could soon send Owings to minor league camp in order to receive more reps.

“This is a big haul for him,” Johnson said. “I don’t know how much I’m going to be able to look at him down here. But I’ll keep giving him some at-bats here and there.”

>>> Ryan Mattheus’s impeccable spring training line became much more messy today. He took the mound in eighth in a tie game, and the Astros tagged him for two runs and three hits.

Mattheus, who had previously struck out seven and walked none in four dominant innings, was not all that bothered by the outing. He explained that he used his fastball to get ahead of hitters, but he evened the counts as he worked out the kinks with his split-fingered fastball.

Only when the Astros hitters got in favorable counts did they whack his, fastball, Mattheus said, and Mattheus is confident those favorable counts won’t be there once he regains the feel for his splitter.

“All in all, it wasn’t really as bad of an outing as it looked,” Mattheus said. “Normally, [the splitter] is the last thing to come around. We focus so much early in throwing sessions on fastball command. You’re really not spinning the ball until you get into a game. So that’s one thing I’m working on. The fastball command is there.”

Johnson feels Drew Storen is still rounding into form. Storen today allowed two hits, one an infield single, and struck out two in a scoreless seventh. He also yielded a line-drive out to left field.

“He was a little up,” Johnson said. “He was dropping his elbow and getting underneath some pitches. He’s not quite there yet.”

>>> Anthony Rendon – gasp! – made a mistake today. In the fifth, he entered to pinch-run for Chad Tracy at second base. Tyler Moore hit a slow dribbler to third base. Rendon waited until the throw across the diamond, then bolted to third. He slid into a tag after the ball came back across the diamond.

“It’s a total screw-up,” Johnson said. “He should know on a slow-hit ball, you don’t have to wait until he throws it.”