Gio Gonzalez has been something of the ugly duckling of the Nationals' rotation much of this summer, unable to keep up with the consistent dominance displayed by Stephen Strasburg, Max Scherzer and Tanner Roark.
And that's been fine, because the Nationals have been winning and their rotation as a whole has been among the best in baseball throughout.
But with Joe Ross' return now no longer in close-range view - the right-hander had to be pulled back from his rehab assignment with lingering shoulder soreness - Gonzalez's importance to this rotation begins to grow.
There's no way to know yet when Ross will return, but it's going to be a while. And given the struggles of the prospects who have been filling in for him (Lucas Giolito, Reynaldo Lopez), the Nationals need to be able to count on their No. 4 starter for more consistent success.
So, there have been few positive developments more important to the club's long-term positioning of late than Gonzalez's midsummer resurgence. With perhaps his best start to date tonight - seven innings of two-hit ball in the Nationals' 5-1 win over the Giants - the left-hander extended his current run to five outings, during which time he has posted a 2.03 ERA, a 1.00 WHIP and rediscovered a sense of confidence that had perhaps dissipated earlier this year.
"I think it's just ... trying to keep up with the rest of our starters, and trying to piggyback on what they've been doing," he said. "I get the privilege to see four other great starters that pound the strike zone and throw good pitches."
That's exactly what Gonzalez has been doing lately, and he certainly did it tonight. He threw 67 of his 104 pitches for strikes. He walked only one batter (and promptly erased him on a pickoff). He allowed only two hits. He threw first-pitch strikes to 14 of the 23 batters he faced. He went to a three-ball count only three times, none after the second inning.
"That's huge," manager Dusty Baker said. "It saves our bullpen. You get more and more confident in Gio, because he gets more and more confident in himself. We all know what Gio can do. He went through a bad stretch there, but hopefully it's over and never to return."
Gonzalez's recent run has included some hard-luck losses, through no fault of his own. He departed with a 5-3 lead last week in Cleveland, only to watch the bullpen (led by now-ex-closer Jonathan Papelbon) blow it. He allowed only one earned run in San Francisco on Sunday, but wound up getting charged with the loss when his teammates couldn't score once off Matt Cain.
So when the Nationals burst out of the gates tonight for two runs in the bottom of the first, then expanded their lead throughout the game, Gonzalez had to feel like a new man, free to attack opposing hitters without fear of giving the lead right back on one bad pitch.
"It's a little bit less pressure," the lefty said. "But, as far as that, (the Giants) swing the bat. Just maybe one inning that they go out and blow up with five, six runs. So keep them as close as you can in a game, and our offense will come through big-time."
Gonzalez has been holding up his end of the bargain for the last month or so. Now the Nationals need to see him keep that up through the remainder of a season in which his role has suddenly increased.