Bullpen collapses after Gio Gonzalez departs

For the third straight start, Gio Gonzalez was unable to pitch out of the sixth inning. Manager Matt Williams yanked Gonzalez after 95 pitches and turned to his bullpen, which promptly allowed four quick runs to change the complexion of the game in the Nationals’ 11-4 loss to the Diamondbacks.

The decision surrounding Gonzalez’s removal seemed strange. The left-hander yielded seven hits with one walk and seven strikeouts when he finished the fifth at 93 pitches. With the Nationals leading 2-1 in the bottom of the frame, Williams opted to have Gonzalez hit with one out and nobody on. He grounded out and two batters later, the inning was over.

“Going up to bat,” Gonzalez said. “I think that was the dead giveaway to go out there for the next inning.”

Sure enough, Gonzalez took the mound in the sixth. But when Yasmany Tomas ripped a single on Gonzalez’s second offering, Williams ended his night.

“95 pitches in six innings? Last I checked you gotta pitch, right,” a dejected Gonzalez said. “Obviously, I gave up hits.”

Gonzalez was resigned to a spectator from the dugout to watch the game unravel. Right-hander Aaron Barrett promptly gave up a single to Chris Owings, and then Nick Ahmed dropped a bunt down the third base line. Barrett hurried off the mound to field the slow-roller. However, his rushed throw skipped past Ryan Zimmerman, allowing both Tomas and Owings to race to the plate to give the Diamondbacks the lead.

roark-pitching-white-sidebar.jpgJarrod Saltalamacchia added an RBI single off Barrett before Williams called on Tanner Roark, who ended up walking in Arizona’s fourth run of the inning.

Williams attempted to explain his strategy with Gonzalez after the blowout loss.

“The hope is that we can get him through the sixth,” Williams said. “But it’s a difficult spot there because we’ve got it set up. It was a good pitch that Aaron threw to Owings. He just numbed it off the end over Anthony’s head. And then the bunt. We’ve got an opportunity there with (Felipe Rivero) out in the bullpen, too. It didn’t work out the way we planned it, for sure.”

Gonzalez hasn’t surrendered more than two runs in his past seven starts dating back to June 21, but Williams has been forced to dip into his bullpen early the last three times the left-hander has taken the hill.

“It’s heavy pitch counts,” Williams said. “He’s making pitches when he has to, but he’s losing the strike zone a little bit. He’ll be ready for his next one. He’s giving us good effort, and that’s all you can care about at this point.”

“Right now, I just gotta focus on my job and go out there and pitch more than five innings,” Gonzalez said. “As a starting pitcher, you want to continue as long ... you want to help out as much as possible and try to give your bullpen as much as rest as possible. It just sucks. I gotta do better than five innings.”

The Nationals have dropped five of their last six games to fall two games behind the Mets for first place in the NL East and 3 1/2 games behind the Giants for the second wild card spot.

“I think we’ll have a conversation tomorrow about where we want to go and what we want to do,” Williams said. “And we’ll go from there. Again, if balls are going all over the ball field. ... I don’t know how many hits they had, 16, 17 hits. That’s a lot of hits. So they’re going to score some runs if they do that.”

Williams was asked if a lopsided loss like this can cause his team to rally around each other with less than two months remaining in the season.

“Can it galvanize? Yeah, we hope so,” Williams said. “That’ll be the message tomorrow, for sure. We’ve got a limited number of games left, and we’ve got to play well if we’re going to get to where we want to go. That includes everybody.”

Rookie Joe Ross will try to salvage a split with the Diamondbacks in Thursday’s series finale.

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