The win for the southpaw snapped a personal seven-game losing streak dating back to May 28 at Baltimore.
Gonzalez allowed only a second inning Nick Markakis solo shot and walked one over those seven frames, striking out three, and scattering five other hits.
The Nats enjoyed RBIs from six different players in their lineup. The biggest hit was a solo homer by Michael A. Taylor, who was inserted into the lineup late in pregame after Bryce Harper was scratched because of a swollen knee and shin.
Taylor also made a spectacular diving catch of a Kurt Suzuki drive in the sixth that robbed the catcher of extra bases. He also came close to catching a long drive off the bat of Freddie Freeman in the eighth. The ball tipped off his glove as he collided with the outfield wall.
The Nationals (59-56) split the four-game set with Atlanta, standing now 5 ½ games back of the idle National League East-leading Phillies.
“Every game is a big game at this point and I don’t think we’re quite scoreboard-watching yet,” Taylor said. “Just coming in every day and trying to win a ball game. I think if we win out we’ll be in a good spot.”
Manager Davey Martinez has said many times the key for his team to have a fighting chance of coming back to the top of the division as the season winds down is for his starting pitchers to return to the form that led the club to a 20-7 record in May.
Thursday afternoon, Gonzalez worked three-up and three-down in the fourth and fifth innings to set the tone for a seven-inning outing.
“I said before the game, if he keeps us in the game we should have a chance to win, and he did that,” Martinez said. “I wanted to get him out and make sure he felt really good. He had a great day, and like I said he kept us in the game, we were able to score some runs, and we held the lead.”
Did Gonzalez make any type of adjustments after allowing a run and five hits in the initial three innings?
“He was just pounding the strike zone, like we always talk about,” Martinez noted. “He threw all his pitches and I don’t know if you guys paid attention, but he didn’t walk anybody, which is pretty awesome. As long as he does that... he doesn’t get many hard-hit balls, he really doesn’t, and he keeps the ball on the ground for the most part, and hopefully we found something on him and he keeps going.”
Gonzalez went seven innings for the sixth time this season, and the second time this season against the Braves. He was efficient, only 94 pitches with 60 strikes. He had never thrown less than 102 pitches this season in a start in which he lasted at least seven frames.
“I think it was just being on the same page with my catcher,” Gonzalez said. “He was calling a great game. Just helping me find a rhythm, find a tune and just slowing it down when I needed to instead of speeding it up. Little things we’re working on in the bullpen, as far as trying to get my arm in front and little things that I wanted to do.”
Matt Wieters said that Gonzalez hasn’t quite gotten his patented curveball back to where it was when he was dominant, but he is still using it. Not giving up on his signature pitch is starting to pay dividends again.
“He kept battling,” Wieters said. “I don’t think command of his curveball is still not quite what we know it to be, but he kept throwing it. He kept them thinking it was a pitch they were going to have to respect. Really, he didn’t walk guys after that. Free passes weren’t there.
“Probably wasn’t his best command even though he had really good command of his sinker and two-seamer today, which helped him get through that outing. But shows you even when Gio doesn’t have his good stuff he still gives us a chance to win.”
Wieters has always done a nice job of keeping Gonzalez on his game plan. Thursday, he guided Gonzalez through each inning. The left-hander began to gain momentum as the start wore on.
“I think I have better command when I don’t think,” Gonzalez confided. “When I don’t have to think. That’s why credit the big guy behind the plate. He did all the work for me. He made it less stressful and less thinking as possible.”
For Gonzalez (7-8) it was also a special win because of the struggles he has had to endure recently.
He had given up five earned runs in two of his last three starts. He walked 11 batters in his last three outings. Not having a win in over two months had taken its toll on Gonzalez.
“As far as the win, yes, it’s a good feeling,” Gonzalez said. “It’s really good when the music’s playing on the day you’re pitching. That I take as a positive note and I love it because it’s been a while since I heard some music on my day. So, it’s a good thing.”
One defining moment for Gonzalez came in the fifth when he retired the dangerous Ronald Acuña, Jr., who later smacked a towering homer against Justin Miller in the eighth. Acuna struck out on a called third strike courtesy a 91 mph two-seam fastball from Gonzalez to end the fifth.
“It was definitely one of those battles,” Gonzalez said. “He’s a great hitting kid. He can definitely put a charge to the ball. And I was just grateful to get that pitch in the strike zone and walk away in the fifth with a good pitch count. So it’s one of those things, you take it in the positive direction and you learn from it. He’s a good hitter. You got to get him when you can.”