NATIONALS QUICK WRAP
Score: Nationals 6, Astros 4
Recap: Gio Gonzalez was efficient for a couple innings but then started having trouble finding the strike zone, leading to four walks. That said, only one Houston batter crossed the plate against the lefty: Marwin Gonzalez, who homered to lead off the fourth. The Nationals already owned a 3-0 lead at that point, thanks to RBI doubles by Daniel Murphy and Michael A. Taylor in the top of the third. There were opportunities for more offense, though, quashed by strikeouts with men in scoring position by Stephen Drew, Scott Sizemore and Danny Espinosa. Houston got a run in the fifth off Burke Badenhop, who was fortunate to escape a bases-loaded, no-out jam without suffering any more damage than that. Sean Burnett recorded his fourth scoreless inning of the spring in relief, bolstering his case to return from a second Tommy John surgery. Top prospect Lucas Giolito pitched a scoreless seventh but surrendered the tying and go-ahead runs in the eighth before the Nats rallied in the ninth. Jhonatan Solano singled to right to score Brendan Ryan, and Clint Robinson hit a two-RBI double to give the Nats a 6-4 lead. Aaron Laffey retired the side in order including a strikeout in the ninth to record the save.
Need to know: Danny Espinosa’s struggles at the plate are becoming a greater concern. After an 0-for-3 game today, Espinosa is now 0-for-17 this spring, with 14 of those outs coming as a left-handed hitter (seven via strikeout).
On deck: Wednesday, vs. Marlins in Jupiter, 1:05 p.m.
KISSIMMEE, Fla. - His final pitching line - one run allowed on three hits over four innings - suggested a job well done by Gio Gonzalez. Those who watched the left-hander throw on a warm March afternoon at Osceola County Stadium knew the numbers were deceiving.
Though the end result was strong, the path Gonzalez took to get there was littered with twists and bumps. Seven of the 17 Astros he faced reached safely, four of them via walks. Only 35 of his 68 pitches were strikes. And only quick reflexes turned a potential bases-loaded single up the middle into a rally-killing double play to end his afternoon.
Truth be told, it was the kind of performance Gonzalez has authored countless times in his four-plus years with the Nationals. Erratic, aggravating, yet encouraging enough to leave more than a sour taste in your mouth.
Gonzalez did find the positives in the outing.
“I actually (pitched) better than the results,” he said. “I felt like I was more in the strike zone where I wanted to be. The results don’t show that, but I felt like I was being more aggressive. I was pitching on counts I wanted to pitch.”
The afternoon began well enough for Gonzalez, who retired the side in the first inning on only 13 pitches. And when he induced an inning-ending double play via Matt Duffy, he had two scoreless innings in the books with a manageable pitch count.
But then an old nemesis reared its ugly head: poor fastball command. Gonzalez issued a pair of walks in the third, and things spiraled downward from there.
He left an 0-2 fastball way up in the zone to Marwin Gonzalez, who opened the fourth with a towering home run to left. Minutes later, Luis Valbuena launched a first-pitch fastball off the top of the right field wall, narrowly missing a homer of his own.
In both instances, Gonzalez regretted having shaken off the initial sign offered by rookie catcher Pedro Severino, calling them “boneheaded mistakes” on his part.
“That’s a glitch in the system, where I thought: ‘Alright, let me try to go up and away,’ ” Gonzalez said of the home run pitch. “It stayed right in the middle, up. But Sevie had the right mindset with another pitch. Same thing with (Valbuena). Again, I shook off to the fastball. And exactly what he was looking for was fastball in. ... If I stuck with his game plan, it would’ve been a different scenario.”
Two more walks left Gonzalez in a jam and brought pitching coach Mike Maddux to the mound for a visit. Though the lefty escaped it by snagging Jason Castro’s comebacker and then throwing to third for the double play, he did so only by the skin of his teeth.
The Nationals specifically were hoping for better fastball command from Gonzalez, who in his most recent start walked four batters. He now has issued eight free passes in his last 6 2/3 innings.