The standing ovation that showered Gio Gonzalez during the top of the sixth inning at Nationals Park on Tuesday night went longer than most, long enough for two bursts of applause as Gonzalez regrouped to face two-time American League MVP Mike Trout after Cameron Maybin’s infield single. It was prompted by another legitimate no-hit bid — his second in 16 days — but it was not in recognition of just that. Those in attendance were acknowledging a season few saw coming from the previously mercurial left-hander.
They expected inconsistency, high pitch counts and aggravation. Instead, Gonzalez has given them his best campaign since he finished third in the National League Cy Young Award race in 2012, his first year in Washington. And it might end up being better than that. With a month-and-a-half remaining in the regular season, Gonzalez exited the Nationals’ 3-1 win over the Los Angeles Angels on Tuesday — buoyed by two home runs from Howie Kendrick — with a 2.49 ERA in 24 starts.
The ERA is the third best in baseball among qualified starting pitchers. His ERA at home is 1.79, lower than any other qualified starter. He has yet to log fewer than five innings in a start and has surrendered more than three runs in only three outings. He is, perhaps, the best No. 3 starter in the majors.
“The main thing is he’s throwing strikes,” Nationals Manager Dusty Baker said.
Gonzalez reduced his ERA by tossing six scoreless innings against a team that had won six straight games. Less than a month after he had one of his worst performances of the season against these same Angels (61-59), he held them to two hits — both in that sixth inning — and walked three. Gonzalez (11-5) struck out four and threw 91 pitches, using home plate umpire Tony Randazzo’s expansive strike zone to his advantage until he handed off a scoreless outing to the bullpen.
Matt Albers relieved Gonzalez and tossed a scoreless seventh to lower his ERA to 1.99 before Brandon Kintzler surrendered his first run as a National in the eighth. Sean Doolittle then pitched a 1-2-3 inning for his ninth save in nine chances with the first-place Nationals (71-46), who continue winning games that have a negligible impact on their robust playoff chances with a depleted roster.
These days at Nationals Park, the most meaningful action for Washington’s World Series prospects takes place a couple of hours before first pitch. That’s when players take groundballs and play catch and hit. Most of them are preparing for a baseball game of little consequence for the home team. A few others, a growing group seemingly by the day, are working their way off the disabled list to be ready when the games matter again.
The two most important members of the recuperating crew are Trea Turner and Jayson Werth. Both are nearing rehab assignments. Turner took batting practice on the field for the first time since fracturing his right wrist June 29. Werth, who hasn’t played since June 3 with a fractured left foot, continued his intense running workouts in right field until 20 minutes before the game’s start time.
Bryce Harper, the Nationals’ latest addition to the disabled list, wasn’t around three days removed from the slip-and-fall heard around the baseball world. That he sustained a significant bone bruise was a huge break for the Nationals — and Major League Baseball, which needs all the star power it can get for October. The injury did, however, still rob the universe of seeing Harper and Trout on the same baseball field again.
Instead, the Nationals were left with an outfield without an Opening Day starter. Kendrick was in left field. Michael A. Taylor was in center. Rookie Andrew Stevenson was in right because Brian Goodwin was unavailable with groin tightness.
But the Nationals have used 12 outfielders this season — the second most in baseball — with astounding success, and Kendrick, acquired late last month, has continued the theme. Batting leadoff Tuesday, the veteran, fresh off a walk-off grand slam Sunday night, belted a pair of solo home runs to lead off the third and fifth innings against Angels starter Tyler Skaggs. The first was the 100th of his career. The second came on a 3-0 pitch. The multi-home run effort was his first since April 2014, the last of his nine seasons with the Angels, and continued his torrid start since joining the Nationals.
“I just go out and play the game the way I know how and I just try to have fun,” said Kendrick, who is batting .386 in 14 games with Washington. “Anything I can do to help our team win, I think that’s what it is about.”
The homers sustained Gonzalez as he carried his no-hit bid into the sixth, when he promptly retired pinch hitter and former National Ben Revere and then Cliff Pennington. The swift Maybin was up next. The count went to 3-2 before Gonzalez threw a 90-mph fastball that Maybin chopped over a leaping Gonzalez and off second baseman Daniel Murphy’s bare right hand for an infield single.
The standing ovation followed. It allowed Gonzalez to gather himself with Trout stepping into the batter’s box. Moments later, Trout crushed a line-drive single to center field. Gonzalez was suddenly in trouble. After the runners advanced on a wild pitch, the Nationals decided to intentionally walk Albert Pujols with first base open to face Jefry Marte, a cleanup hitter with a .172 batting average entering Tuesday. Marte squared a pitch, launching a 100-mph line drive to Murphy’s right that the second baseman jumped to snag at the last second to rob Marte of what likely would have been a game-tying hit.
“If it wasn’t for his play, it’s a different ballgame,” Gonzalez said. “We wouldn’t be talking with so much smiling. We’d be talking with more, ‘Got to make a better pitch.’ ”
But Murphy made the play on what was Gonzalez’s final pitch of the night, concluding another superb outing in a season so many never expected.
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