Patience, contact help Nationals lineup break through vs. Mets

NEW YORK - Gio Gonzalez has been a constant for the Nationals through the first quarter of the season, a welcome development from a pitcher who in the past befuddled with his inconsistency.

Consistency at the plate has not been a hallmark for the Nats so far in 2016, and that has been a source of frustration.

But when the lineup clicks on the same night Gonzalez takes the mound, the result is particularly encouraging. Like a 7-1 thumping of the Mets in a game of at least moderate importance.

"It feels good to score some runs, number one," manager Dusty Baker said. "And number two, Gio continues to be one of our best pitchers."

Can't argue with either point. The Nationals had been stymied in their three previous games, held to a total of two runs. The presence of flamethrowers Jose Fernandez and Noah Syndergaard on the mound for the opposition certainly played a role in that, but so did the Nats' inability to put together enough quality plate appearances to give themselves a chance.


They finally did that tonight against Bartolo Colon and the Mets bullpen, showing both the patience to draw 11 walks (matching a club record) and the skill to find holes in the opposing infield with runners in scoring position.

The key hits in this one: Daniel Murphy's two-out RBI single in the third, Anthony Rendon's two-out, two-run single in the fifth and Wilson Ramos' two-out, two-run single in the ninth.

Murphy's early knock, which produced the first run of the game, showcased one of the league-leading hitter's best traits: The ability to make contact. Down 0-2 in the count to Colon, he proceeded to foul off five consecutive pitches before calmly poking the sixth down the third base line and past a diving David Wright to give his team a 1-0 lead.

"I didn't really hit that ball very hard," said Murphy, whose batting average actually dropped to .395 with a 1-for-4 night. "But I put it in play, and fortunately something good happened for us."

Those are the kind of at-bats that have come to epitomize Murphy, who had the lowest strikeout rate of any qualifying hitter in the majors last season. They're also the kind of at-bats that used to be more prevalent in the sport but have become more noteworthy in this strikeout-heavy era.

"That's what hitting's about: a battle and a fight," Baker said. "You foul off some tough pitches. You see guys that hit for a good average, they fight off those pitches. You fight off the pitch, you have an emergency stroke, then you get a good pitch and you put the ball in play. I don't see why that's such a big deal. I guess it's a big deal because of all these strikeouts that are happening now. But that's how you're supposed to hit. That's what hitting is: It's a battle between you and the pitcher. And it's not a battle if you're just going to strike out. In fact, that's called a slaughter."

In discussing his hot start to the season, Murphy regularly points out the "traffic on the bases" in front of him, allowing him to bat in advantageous situations. It absolutely was the case tonight: All five of his plate appearances came with two men on base.

That's because both Jayson Werth and Bryce Harper kept finding their way out there. Werth matched his career high by reaching base five times, something he had not achieved since 2012. And Harper drew four walks, adding to his MLB-leading total (which now stands at 45).

"I think we've done a good job this year of giving ourselves a chance," Werth said. "We might not always get the hit that breaks it open, but we've had those opportunities. That's the key. That's the biggest thing. You've got to keep giving yourself chances, and eventually good teams are going to break out and break it open."

The beneficiary of the balanced offensive showing was Gonzalez, not that he needed much of it on another impressive night for the left-hander.

With only one run allowed (Yoenis Cespedes' solo homer in the fourth) and only three baserunners allowed until the seventh inning, Gonzalez lowered his ERA to 1.86 and again displayed the kind of consistency that too often eluded him in previous years.

"He's getting better and better," Baker said.

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