Williams on Gonzalez’s return and Harper’s progress

Before Wednesday’s game, Nationals manager Matt Williams provided the reasoning behind having Sandy Leon catch left-hander Gio Gonzalez’s return from the disabled list against the Houston Astros.

“Just getting (Leon) in there. He’s got some experience with Gio, has caught Gio. Nothing in particular,” Williams said. “Just get him in against the righty.”

Gonzalez got to 79 pitches in his last minor league rehab start. But he has not pitched in a major league game since May 17 against the New York Mets, a 5-2 loss. Gonzalez has lost three straight decisions. He was placed on the disabled list May 18 with left shoulder inflammation.

Does Williams expect 79 pitches to be the threshold for Gonzalez tonight?

“It depends on how he gets through the game,” Williams said. “He should be good to 100 (pitches). Depending on stress, innings. But we’ll have to evaluate as we go. He should be good to go to 100 - strong enough, feels good enough.”

Williams said the key for Gonzalez tonight is whether or not the veteran is finishing his pitches and making sure the fastball doesn’t rise in the zone too much.

“For me, it is going to be balls down in the strike zone and strikes,” Williams said. “If he can drive the ball to his glove side, I think that’s important for him. That means he is finishing. He hasn’t had any complaints about his shoulder even in his two rehab starts. He’s been fine. His bullpen was great, no complaints. So I think that is good, that’s strong. He feels good about that. Certainly the ability to get strike one and be able to drive the ball to his glove side is key. So that is what we will look for.”

Gonzalez is 2-0 with a 2.45 ERA in three games against Houston in his career, with 24 strikeouts and six walks over 22 innings.

Williams updated the progress of left fielder Bryce Harper, who is on schedule as he rehabs following surgery on a left thumb ligament.

“Same program,” Williams said. “Today he did some outfield work with (first base coach and former major league outfielder) Tony (Tarasco). So he got in the glove, did some agility stuff, caught some balls, did some bare-hand work today, which is important for him to do, and went through a full kind of outfield workout today. He’ll hit in the cage again. That’ll be modified. In the next couple of days, he should be able to get out for some batting practice on the field. That’s a good sign.”

Williams said when Harper returns, he will play all three outfield positions. Williams expects Ryan Zimmerman to play left field, third base and first base. Anthony Rendon will play third base and second base.

“The good thing about our club is they have experience,” Williams said. “Bryce has experience playing center field and he has experience playing right field. It’s not something that is foreign to him because he has done it.

“The first day in left field for Zim this year was foreign, but he handled it fine. There was a lot of work that went into getting him ready to do that. But you have to train your legs a little bit differently. So over the next two weeks or so, he’ll start getting some grounders and get his infield legs back because it is a completely different position. And do that at first as well.”

Williams alluding to “the next two weeks or so” would set Harper up to possibly return in early July versus after the All-Star break. That is still a wait-and-see proposition as to the exact return date for Harper, but certainly is a positive clue.

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