Gio Gonzalez often gets a little frustrated after losses but is not the type to let animosity linger. So when he suggested his manager, Dave Martinez, took him out too soon when he removed him in the sixth inning in his previous start, the two talked it over. Both of them seemed just fine with where they left things, neither bullied into submission nor storming away misunderstood.
But on Sunday, with few fresh arms in the bullpen and a tight lead to preserve, Martinez left Gonzalez in to pitch the seventh inning. Gonzalez put two men on, sliding into the kind of mess that has so often consumed this team late.
Then, in what amounts to a total reversal of fortunes for the Nationals, he got out of it. Something went right. Brandon Kintzler and Sean Doolittle handled the eighth and ninth. Washington salvaged a 3-1 win from an otherwise damaging series against the Arizona Diamondbacks and moved back to four games under .500.
“I knew [Gio] wanted to finish that inning in San Francisco, so I was going to hold him to it if he didn’t go back out and finish it. I was rooting really hard for him.” Kintzler said. “I was rooting for a lot of runs, to be honest with you.”
Gonzalez did allow one run on a sacrifice fly in that inning, but he left with a lead after seven innings in which he allowed that run on six hits and 114 pitches, the most he has thrown since Aug. 31.
But that Kintzler was rooting for runs hints at the reason winning one game has been so hard for this team — let alone compiling the kind of winning streak the Nationals need to get back to where their expectations and outside projections suggest they belong. Six of their past seven games have been decided by two runs or fewer. Three of their relievers have appeared in at least half of their 28 games.
For weeks, the running joke in the bullpen has been every game was close. The term “joke,” of course, is used loosely here. After weeks of constant use because of the Nationals’ inability to add to leads, Kintzler, Sammy Solis, Ryan Madson and Doolittle have nothing to do but pitch, hope their arms hold up and pray for blowouts. They did not get one Sunday, so they and their teammates were left to pray for Gonzalez’s good fortune instead.
“[Gonzalez] knew we needed to keep going. He showed a lot of guts to get through it,” catcher Matt Wieters said. “. . . I just kind of kept telling him, ‘One more. Just get one more.’ ”
“Just one more” might as well be the mantra for this offense right now. It is struggling to add even a few runs to leads — though the fact that this injury-riddled lineup is building leads at all should count for something.
Former Nationals prospect Robbie Ray started for the Diamondbacks but left the game abruptly in the second with a strained oblique. Wieters was batting at the time, and the Diamondbacks replaced Ray with another lefty, T.J. McFarland. Wieters caught McFarland for four years in Baltimore and looked comfortable hitting against him as he belted a home run to left-center to give the Nationals a lead. They eventually loaded the bases later that inning, building a chance to blow the game open and send the Diamondbacks into bullpen preservation mode. Ryan Zimmerman pushed home a run by reaching on an error. Bryce Harper grounded out to end the inning.
Michael A. Taylor added a home run in the third, which gave the Nationals their biggest lead of the back-and-forth series. In addition to missing Adam Eaton, Anthony Rendon and Daniel Murphy because of injuries, the Nationals were effectively missing Wieters and, at times, Taylor. They entered Sunday hitting .200 and .220, respectively.
A hot streak from either man would lessen the load on Harper and Zimmerman and reduce the need for production from less experienced players. Somebody has to help this offense, which has been unable to build on its initial leads — and therefore has thrown the weight of its season on a bullpen not built to withstand it. Madson and Solis were unavailable after working two days in a row. Doolittle was pushing through his third straight outing. Kintzler pitched for a second consecutive day. Because the game was too close to go to less-taxed, less-experienced relievers such as Trevor Gott or Austin Voth, the only way to preserve innings was for Gonzalez to eat them. This time, Martinez let him do that.
“I think [Martinez] did a great job by feeling confident in me, letting me go out there and definitely helping me feel a little bit better about saving some arms in the ’pen,” Gonzalez said. “. . . It was a good feeling when you have Sean Doolittle embrace that and acknowledge it. And then you have [Kintzler] doing the same thing, saying, ‘You saved some arms out there.’ ”
Doolittle will not be available Monday night against the Pittsburgh Pirates because he has thrown three straight days. Kintzler only will be available in an emergency because he has thrown two straight. Winning streaks are hard to come by when close games are a habit. Winning streaks are impossible to come by without the first win. At least now Gonzalez and the Nationals have that.