Gonzalez discovers uncharted territory: the eighth inning

As Gio Gonzalez took the mound late Sunday afternoon at Nationals Park, his pitch count approaching triple digits and only a couple of empty slots remaining on the scoreboard, he couldn’t help but recognize the rarity of this situation.

“It was the eighth inning,” the left-hander said. “I haven’t seen one of those in a while.”

No, he most certainly hadn’t. Gonzalez reached the eighth inning only once in the two previous seasons combined, so he truly was in uncharted waters when he pitched deep into Sunday’s series finale against the Phillies.

He earned the right to do it, though. Gonzalez had to that point allowed only one run (Cesár Hernández’s game-opening homer) on three hits, keeping his pitch count manageable and putting the Nationals in position to win.

The irony? Gonzalez was not at his best Sunday.

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“He battled,” catcher Matt Wieters said. “I’d say out of the three outings (this season), that was probably the worst stuff he’s had. But he was able to come back when he needed to, and when he got behind in the count he made some big pitches. He used everything, and he was able to locate enough when he needed to, to get through that and really give us a great outing.”

It’s still awfully early, and we’ve seen Gonzalez both enjoy sustained runs of success and ineffectiveness, but it’s hard not to like what he has shown so far in 2017.

The lefty enjoyed a drama-free spring training, pitching effectively and efficiently nearly every chance he got. And he has been able to carry all that right into the regular season. In his April 6 debut, he tossed six scoreless innings against the Marlins. In his April 11 return, he allowed one earned run to the Cardinals in seven innings. And on Sunday, he was charged with two earned runs in 7 1/3 innings, his longest start since August 10, 2015.

What has stood out the most about Gonzalez to his teammates?

“I’d say it’s his pace,” left fielder Jayson Werth said. “He’s working fast. I think he’s at his best when his pace is quick like that. I think that’s what he’s been able to do. I looked up at one point; we were in the eighth inning and it seemed like it was only a couple of hours. ... I think that’s when he’s at his best.”

Among National League pitchers who have made at least three starts so far this year, Gonzalez ranks fifth with a 1.33 ERA. He’s tied for fourth in the league in innings pitched, trailing only Clayton Kershaw, Madison Bumgarner and teammate Stephen Strasburg.

“I’m just happy I’m still healthy, still throwing the baseball well,” he said. “Still giving my team - I shouldn’t say my team, our team - a chance to go out there and give us a chance to win.”

Gonzalez didn’t get the win Sunday, but that wasn’t his fault. When he walked off the mound in the top of the eighth, the Nationals led 3-2. They wound up falling behind 4-3, only to be resurrected by Bryce Harper’s walk-off homer in the bottom of the ninth.

Nondescript 1-0 record aside, Gonzalez has been everything the Nationals could have hoped for to begin this season. Now they just need to see him maintain this pace and continue this success over the long haul.

“I’m just happy to be out there, showing great signs of improvement,” he said. “A man on the mission. That’s how I feel. I want to continue to stay with that focus and that mindset.”

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