Johnson on where Gonzalez can improve, plus plans for bench guys

Gio Gonzalez finished third in the National League Cy Young voting last season.

The Nationals left-hander led the majors with 21 wins, posted a sub-3.00 ERA, worked nearly 200 innings and struck out 9.3 batters per nine innings, best in the NL among starting pitchers.

It was a heck of a season, and quite a statement in Gonzalez’ first season in D.C. after coming to the Nats in a trade with the Athletics.

But as Gonzalez prepares to take the mound tonight for his first start of 2013, where would his manager like to see him improve? What can Gonzalez do to take even that next step?

“I hope we don’t have as many games where he has to worry about me staying with him,” Davey Johnson said. “There were some times last year that he’d have a rough inning and he’d feel like I was looking to hook him. And I didn’t. But I think new league, new team, he (now) knows the hitters a little bit better. Knows where he wants to locate the ball.

“He was awfully good last year, but there’s still some room to improve on that.”

So consistency is the word?

“A little consistency,” Johnson said. “But he was so good last year. I could count on my finger the number of times where he had a rough outing where he might’ve only gone five or six.”

Of Gonzalez’s 32 regular season starts last season, he failed to go at least six full innings only seven times. Then there were his two postseason starts, however. Gonzalez went five innings in both Games 1 and 5 of the National League Division Series, walking seven in his first playoff start and walking four in his second.

That walk rate last season - 3.4 per nine innings - could probably stand to come down a bit, although he did cut it down from 4.1 walks per nine in both 2011 and 2010.

Tonight, Gonzalez will take the mound in frigid conditions, which is not a strength of his. The Miami-area acknowledges that warmer is better on days that he pitches, as far as he’s concerned.

Meanwhile, with the Nationals having a set group of starters in the outfield and infield, there likely won’t be many opportunities for the bench guys - Chad Tracy, Tyler Moore, Steve Lombardozzi and Roger Bernadina - to get playing time.

Especially early in the season, when there are so many off-days, it might be tough for Johnson to keep those guys fresh.

“Tracy’s really good at talking to the guys and having them be prepared late in the game to pinch-hit,” Johnson said. “Be watching the pitcher, watching what’s going on rather than ... first year I got here, a lot of the guys would hang around the cage and swing all the time. I had to go find them. They’re much more in tune with that role. The tough thing is when you have a couple young players on the bench, with Tyler Moore and Lombo. That’s the tough thing, because they’re used to playing every day. Of course, Lombo last year got to play a whole lot. They both got to play a whole lot in the spring, so they’re where they need to be, but with a lot of off-days early ...

“And especially with the makeup of this ballclub, nobody wants to come out of the lineup. So I’ll be trying to do my best to get them in on double switches and stuff like that. I usually get the dagger eye when I double switch one of them, especially Espinosa. I knew that was going to be an issue coming in.

“Hopefully we stay healthy, but I’ve got a lot of guys that don’t want to come out of the lineup, and I don’t see a whole lot of reason to take them out of the lineup.”

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