Delayed debut no issue for dominant Gonzalez

The Nationals can't say - with a straight face, at least - they knew with 100 percent certainty what they'd get out of Gio Gonzalez last night. Not in his season debut. Not a full 16 days removed from his last appearance on the mound.

But when the left-hander navigated his way through a 13-pitch top of the first, they had reason to be optimistic. And when he made it through the third without allowing a run and with a manageable pitch count of 46, they had to be even more encouraged.

gonzalez-gio-red-side-pitching-sidebar.jpgAnd by the time Gonzalez departed having thrown six scoreless innings against the Braves, whatever doubts there had been about the oft-inconsistent southpaw were thrown out the window, never to be seen again.

"He was very sharp," manager Dusty Baker said. "You wouldn't have known he had missed two weeks."

A combination of rainouts, scheduled off-days and the Nationals' desire to slot him between Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg left Gonzalez the odd man out since March 27, when he last pitched in a Grapefruit League game. Since then, he had plenty of opportunities to throw off the bullpen mound, working on stuff he finally was able to apply in a real game.

"I felt locked in," he said. "I felt like I didn't miss a beat. Four bullpens later, I think you're going to have your tune-up a little bit."

Perhaps most impressive about Gonzalez's start: He issued only one walk, and that came with two outs in the first to the dangerous Freddie Freeman. After that, he stayed around the plate, throwing 61 of his 95 pitches for strikes.

"I wanted to make it 'less is more,' " Gonzalez said of his pitching philosophy. "Keep it real simple and just pound the strike zone."

Gonzalez accomplished that by relying far more on his fastball (66 pitches) and changeup (22 pitches) than his trademark curveball (seven pitches). He also dialed back his fastball a bit, averaging only 89.6 mph with that pitch, down several ticks from its usual velocity.

"You could tell he was very calm," Baker said. "He didn't have many baserunners. He had an outstanding changeup. A pretty good curveball, when needed. And he had good location on his fastball. I mean, he was very good tonight."

The challenge now facing Gonzalez: how to make sure he carries over this success into his next start, which will take place in a mere five days, not 16.

How many bullpen sessions is Gonzalez expecting to throw before he next takes the mound?

"I'm hoping just one," he said with a laugh before turning to a camera and ostensibly speaking directly to pitching coach Mike Maddux. "Mike, if you're listening, one bullpen!"

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