Entering Sunday’s 9-2 win over the Pittsburgh Pirates, opposing batters were hitting .365 against Gonzalez on their third plate appearance of the game.
And after pitching five scoreless innings to start the afternoon, including four straight without surrendering a hit, Gonzalez had to battle for the first time since receiving a nine-run cushion in the first inning.
With one out and runners on first and third, 2013 National League MVP Andrew McCutchen came to the plate. McCutchen worked a full count, but Gonzalez answered, slinging a 78 mph curveball past the swinging center fielder for strike three.
Gonzalez would retire the side and toss one more scoreless inning en route to claiming his fifth win of the season.
Gonzalez’s four-hit, four-strikeout performance Sunday came just one start after his worst of the season. In a 6-1 loss to Tampa Bay last Monday, Gonzalez allowed five runs in a season-low 3
The difference was striking.
“I think he used his curveball a lot. He threw some change-ups, but for the most part his curveball was effective for him,” Manager Matt Williams said. “In a big spot, he got McCutchen on one.”
The victory gave Gonzalez sole possession of second place on the Nationals’ all-time wins list with 47, breaking a tie with injured starter Stephen Strasburg . He now ranks behind only right-hander Jordan Zimmermann , who has 62 career wins with the Nationals.
After the game, Gonzalez deflected the credit to catcher Jose Lobaton.
“Lobi did a great job there mixing up the pitches, constantly being aggressive with me,” Gonzalez said. “Just, you know, ‘Come on. Don’t fall behind. Get ahead of these guys.’ ”
The catcher, who was behind the plate for two of Gonzalez’s previous three losses, took notice of the differences.
“He was using everything. Fastball command was better,” he said. “We talked a little bit before the game about the game plan, about what we’re supposed to do today, and said we have to use the curve a little bit more. We have to. That is his best pitch.”
Before Sunday, Gonzalez had only gone seven innings twice this season — in consecutive starts against the New York Mets and Atlanta Braves in early May. In those two games, both wins, Gonzalez threw 111 and 103 pitches, respectively.
In seven innings against the Pirates, Gonzalez threw just 85 pitches, 50 of which were strikes.
“He pounded the zone, threw strikes,” first baseman Clint Robinson said. “And when Gio’s got all his stuff working, he’s very hard to hit. He’s one of the better left-handed starters in the league, so when he puts all that together, he’s tough to beat.”