“Hopefully, he goes out and just keeps us in the ballgame,” Martinez said. “I told him: ‘Just one pitch at a time. Just keep us in the game.’ ”
Several hours later, Gonzalez stood in front of his locker with a smile. A Spotify playlist, the one the Nationals play in their clubhouse after wins, had been blaring on the speaker a few feet away. It was playing because Gonzalez blew past his boss’s expectations in Washington’s 6-3 win, delivering an outing his club needed to salvage a split of the four-game series.
“It’s been a while since I heard some music on my day,” Gonzalez said. “So it’s a good thing.”
For seven innings, Gonzalez replicated his form from the season’s first two months, the version the Nationals have hoped will resurface consistently every five days. He recovered from a rocky beginning to allow one run, benefiting from stellar defensive plays during the early rough patch. He yielded six hits, walked one and retired 12 of the final 13 batters he faced. He threw 94 pitches and earned his first win since May 28.
“He had a great day,” Martinez said.
Washington (59-56) earned the split without Bryce Harper, who was a late scratch after getting drilled by a pitch on the right shin in Wednesday’s loss. The Nationals supplied enough offense by capitalizing on a comebacker that knocked out a Braves starter after two innings for the second time. They finished their 10-game homestand 7-3 but made up just a half-game on the first-place Philadelphia Phillies in the NL East standings. They left for Chicago for a three-game set against the Cubs facing a 5½ -game deficit. The second-place Braves are 4½ games ahead.
“Anytime we’re playing really anybody from here on out, we’re going to have to play like we need it,” catcher Matt Wieters said. “Especially against a team that’s ahead of us in the standings.”
Gonzalez spent the first three innings Thursday getting behind hitters and ominously dodging disaster. In the first, after Ozzie Albies singled, Freddie Freeman smashed a 106-mph line drive to center field. Albies was running on the pitch, which would’ve been ideal for the Braves (62-50) had the ball found the gap. But Michael A. Taylor, a defensive upgrade over Harper, chased it down and whipped the ball to first base for an inning-ending double play.
Nick Markakis clobbered a 2-0 fastball off the second deck’s facing to lead off the next frame. Charlie Culberson later delivered a one-out single before Ender Inciarte smashed a 100-mph line drive. Daniel Murphy snared it with a dive.
In the third, Gonzalez surrendered another line drive by Freeman, one that found a gap. Freeman ended up at second with a double. Next, Markakis lined a single to right. Freeman was given the green light to round third base, and Adam Eaton caught him with a one-hop throw to home plate to end the inning. Gonzalez escaped again, and a break for the Nationals awaited.
Wes Parsons, not Anibal Sanchez, took the mound for the Braves for the bottom of the inning. Sanchez had cruised through two innings, but Taylor’s comebacker to conclude the second inning marked the end of his day. Sanchez suffered a left calf contusion, and the Braves, who lost Max Fried in the second inning Tuesday, gave the ball to Parsons for his major league debut.
Gonzalez welcomed the right-hander with a one-out single up the middle. Next, Eaton whacked a groundball off Parsons’s left foot that ricocheted into left field. The Nationals were suddenly threatening. After getting some time to regroup, Parsons issued walks to Trea Turner and Juan Soto, which tied the score. Anthony Rendon followed with a sacrifice fly to the wall in left field to give Washington a 2-1 lead.
The Nationals left two runners on base but added a run in the fourth, when Taylor turned on a fastball down the middle for a solo homer. He added a diving catch in shallow left-center field to end the top of the sixth inning, potentially saving a run with a Brave running on contact from first base.
“Some of the plays these guys made, from Eaton, Mikey, and then you got Daniel making some diving plays,” Gonzalez said, “I mean, everyone did a great job today defensively.”
Moments later, the Nationals tacked on another run when Rendon raced around from first base to score on Murphy’s double. By that point, Gonzalez was breezing through the Braves’ deep lineup. After allowing six hitters to reach base through three innings, Gonzalez surrendered one hit and didn’t walk a batter over the next four frames. His curveball wasn’t crisp, but he worked around the weakness by relying on a sharp two-seam fastball. He attacked the strike zone, implementing adjustments he honed during his bullpen session between starts. He focused on getting his arm out in front and unleashing his pitches without any hesitation. And he let Wieters guide him.
“I have better command when I don’t think, when I don’t have to think,” Gonzalez said. “That’s why I credit the big guy behind the plate. He did all the work for me. He made it less stressful.”
The result was an efficient Gonzalez. He was exceptional after the alarming turbulence. He gave his manager what he wanted, and more, when the Nationals needed it most.