NEW YORK — Wednesday marked the quarter mark of the Washington Nationals’ season. A 7-1 win over the New York Mets pushed them to 24-16 and kept them in first place in the National League East, a victory that reinforced some truths learned from the first six weeks: The starting pitching has been the best part of the team, the defense and bullpen are much improved over last season, and the offense is still a work in progress.
“We’re good,” Nationals Manager Dusty Baker said, “but we know we’re better.”
Part of what Baker knows needs to improve is the team’s hitting, particularly Jayson Werth, Ryan Zimmerman and Anthony Rendon. Werth and Rendon offered signs in the win over the Mets. And as he has done often already this season, Gio Gonzalez provided a solid start to improve to 7-1 with a 1.76 career ERA against the Mets at Citi Field.
Gonzalez’s mix of 90-mph sinkers and curveballs kept the Mets off balance in one of his best starts of the season. His improved approach has vaulted him to the top of the Nationals’ rotation through six weeks, and his 1.86 ERA is the lowest on the team.
The lone run Gonzalez surrendered was a solo home run by Yoenis Cespedes in the fourth inning, a towering shot off a change-up over the plate. Gonzalez was seldom in trouble, and when he had a runner on with two outs in the sixth inning, he unfurled a curveball that caught David Wright looking. Reliever Felipe Rivero helped Gonzalez escape a seventh-inning bind.
“I don’t know,” Gonzalez said of his improvement. “Seeing the strike zone more, staying locked in more, picking up my glove.”
Albeit a small sample size, Gonzalez’s velocity is down some, from 92 mph to 89.7 mph entering Wednesday’s game, but his command has been better. He walked just one in his 6⅓ innings to improve to 3-1. Mets pitchers, meanwhile, walked 11.
“Gio continues to be one of our best pitchers,” Baker said. “He’s getting better and better.”
In his second game hitting second in the lineup, Werth went 2 for 2 with three walks. Baker flipped Werth and Rendon in the lineup for this series, hoping the changes would lead to improvement for both slumping hitters. Werth, who entered the game with a .210 average, agreed the new spot might suit his skills well and it showed.
“Sometimes, flip-flop the lineup around, move a guy here, move a guy there and you get somebody going,” Werth said. “It’s funny how things work. I didn’t really feel that comfortable hitting sixth, for whatever reason. I’ve hit sixth before. But the feel of it, just didn’t feel like I was in the flow of the game very well. But hitting second, kinda changed and switched things up. Got my thinking switched up a little bit. It felt pretty comfortable the last couple nights.”
Werth matched a career high by reaching base five times. He scored in the third inning when Daniel Murphy battled Mets starter Bartolo Colon, fouling off six pitches before singling past Wright.
Werth singled in his next two at-bats, scoring in the seventh on Murphy’s sacrifice fly. Mets center fielder Juan Lagares made a Willie Mays-like catch to grab the ball with his back to home plate, but it was deep enough to plate Werth and give the Nationals a three-run lead.
“It was nice as an offense to put up a crooked number tonight and reward Gio for how well he’s been throwing the ball,” Murphy said. “I don’t think we’ve been giving him a ton of run support this year.”
Rendon also did his part to support Gonzalez and show even a little progress in his struggles. He hasn’t hit the ball with authority much this season — and he didn’t Wednesday on his key hit — but he benefited from a well-placed ball. His single past diving shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera plated two runs.
Colon walked five batters and hit a batter — the first time he’s done that since 2000. Mets relievers piled up another six walks. Bryce Harper drew four walks for the fourth time in his career.
With a 5-1 lead, Gonzalez ran into a jam in the seventh. He gave up three singles and got one out. Baker called for Rivero, who has had some trouble against left-handed batters this season. Rivero skipped a ball to the backstop but got a lucky bounce when it rolled back to catcher Wilson Ramos’s feet. Rivero got two groundouts to wriggle out. Ramos’s single in the ninth gave the Nationals an even more comfortable lead.
“For us to be where we’re at right now, and I don’t feel like we’ve played out best baseball, I think that’s positive,” Werth said. “I think we’ve had guys carry us. Bryce has carried us. Murph has carried us. I think everybody at some point has carried us. I don’t think we’ve really hit stride as a team.”