PITTSBURGH - Seven batters into today’s game, the Nationals looked to be heading for a disastrous conclusion to their seven-game road trip.
Bryce Harper had already been ejected. Gio Gonzalez’s first pitch of the game had been crushed into the left field seats by Starling Marte, giving the Pirates a 1-0 lead. Ryan Zimmerman committed his fifth throwing error of the season. Gonzalez had the bases full with Pirates and nobody out.
Things could’ve gotten out of hand in a hurry. Instead, Gonzalez righted the ship, striking out Russell Martin and Michael McKenry and getting Brandon Inge to ground out to short.
So much for a monster inning or an overwhelming deficit. If anything, the way the first inning played out might’ve given the Nats some momentum.
“That’s a place where a lot of people could give up, and he battled right there,” Danny Espinosa said. “For him, with no outs and bases loaded and not give up a run, for me, I felt like that was a turning point.”
Adam LaRoche agreed.
“I’ll tell you what, Gio (did an) unbelievable job keeping his head on right there,” LaRoche said. “He could’ve easily gone the other way, gone south. He kept his head up, kept throwing good pitches. We snuck out of that inning and then he was great the rest of the way. A tough start, it looked back there with the bases loaded and nobody out in the first inning. It looked like we were going to be in a pretty serious hole. But Gio did what he does.”
Gonzalez allowed just one run over his next five innings of work, and he let the Nationals’ bats take over. Espinosa had a sac fly and a two-run homer, giving the Nats a 3-1 lead after four, and then Tyler Moore added some insurance with a three-run blast in the eighth.
Everyone in the Nats clubhouse, even the guys that did the offensive damage, pointed back to the first inning as what got them going.
Gonzalez has had problems pumping the breaks on the opposition after getting hit around a bit early in a start. A rough first or second inning can often mean a rough outing for the left-hander. Today, however, he was able to calm himself, which he credited to discussions with his infielders, catcher Wilson Ramos and pitching coach Steve McCatty, who visited the mound after Gonzalez walked Gaby Sanchez to load the bases.
“I think a younger me would have probably spiraled out of control,” Gonzalez acknowledged. “... You had to make the adjustment quick. Especially with a team like that, if they get a little blood on the water they’re going to go out there and try to swing it. I was just trying to slow their game down.”
Espinosa only had 18 at-bats against left-handed pitching all season coming into today, and his numbers in those at-bats weren’t too impressive (.167/.250.333). He crushed two balls off Pirates lefty Wandy Rodriguez today, however, including his two-run blast on a hanging curve in the fourth.
“Danny hasn’t been swinging the bat as well from the right side this year like he did last year, but he had great at-bats today,” manager Davey Johnson said. “I was really pleased with his approach today. And the two-strike curveball, he didn’t try to crush it, he just met it. Of course, he’s so strong, it went a long way.”
In yesterday’s win over the Pirates, Moore went 0-for-3 with two strikeouts (both with the bases loaded) before lifting a sac fly that scored the game winning run in the ninth. Today, Moore went 0-for-3 with three strikeouts (all looking) before coming up in the eighth with two runners on.
The Pirates had opted to intentionally walk LaRoche - whose swing is starting to come back - to get to Moore. That call backfired in a big way when Moore crunched a three-run homer to left off Pirates righty Bryan Morris.
“(The intentional walk) fires you up a little bit, but you can’t blame them,” Moore said. “I would’ve done the same thing. Rochie is swinging a good bat, and I was struggling early. Yeah, it does fire you up a little bit. I’m just glad it happened.
“It definitely wasn’t going my way the first three at-bats. But I was able to get a good opportunity and I was able to make the most out of it.”
The Nats will head home sitting two games above .500, just two games back of the Braves. They’ll have five games at home against the Tigers and Cubs and then head out west for a lengthy road trip. They hope to have Jayson Werth in the lineup on Tuesday, but Johnson said he’s not sure if Werth’s hamstring will allow him to play just yet.
“I don’t know if he’ll be ready,” Johnson said. “Hamstring’s not something I mess around with. If you just go back, (Matt) Kemp came back early from a hamstring and he went down again. And that’s something I’m going to make sure we’re completely by.”