MIAMI -- In hindsight, the Nationals were perfectly happy to wind up with Gio Gonzalez in their rotation instead of Mark Buehrle. It was only seven months ago, however, that general manager Mike Rizzo's focus was set squarely on Buehrle, his top offseason target.
It wasn't until after Buehrle spurned the Nationals' three-year offer for a four-year deal with the Marlins and Rizzo's gaze turned to Gonzalez and the six-player trade that brought the left-hander to Washington.
The Nationals aren't complaining at all, not with Gonzalez tied for the league lead in wins and coming off an appearance in the All-Star Game. But on Saturday night, everyone else did get a good glimpse at what made Buehrle so attractive to them in the first place.
With pinpoint command a breakneck pace on the mound, Buehrle carved up the Nationals' lineup for seven innings, leading the Marlins to a 2-1 victory and making a hard-luck loser out of Gonzalez, who was in top form himself but came out on the wrong end of a difficult decision.
"He certainly pitched well enough to win that one," manager Davey Johnson said.
Gonzalez pitched extraordinarily well, scattering four singles and a double over six innings, striking out nine and walking none. Buehrle, though, was better, allowing just one run over seven innings and looking every bit worth the 58 million contract he received in December.
"That's the first time I've ever faced him, but obviously I've seen him a lot," Ryan Zimmerman said of the 33-year-old left-hander, pitching in the NL for the first time this season. "He's been in the league a long time, and he's been really good a long time. He's one of those guys who pounds the zone, he works quick, and he's got a bunch of different pitches that he throws for strikes."
Buehrle (9-8, 3.13 ERA) was so efficient -- he needed only 26 pitches, 20 of them strikes, to complete his first three innings -- the Nationals couldn't afford to try to work the count. He threw first-pitch strikes to 13 of the first 15 batters he faced, leaving just about every hitter in a hole or forcing them to try to put the first pitch in play.
The only run they finally managed to score off him came via small ball and hustle in the top of the fifth, with Ian Desmond beating out a bunt, then stealing second, then racing around to score on Jesus Flores' broken-bat single to left.
The Nationals had a chance to add to the tally later in that inning, with two on and nobody out. But Buehrle fielded Gonzalez's sacrifice bunt attempt and fired to third base to nail the lead runner. That proved costly when Danny Espinosa followed with a flyball to right that would have scored a man from third.
Instead, Zimmerman wound up at the plate with two outs and the bases loaded and wound up striking out on a 2-2 changeup in the dirt.
"I had a chance to get a big hit there, and he made some good pitches against me," said Zimmerman, who had been hitting .364 over his last 16 games. "I wish I could get a hit every time, but unfortunately the pitcher wins sometimes."
Zimmerman wasn't alone in his struggles against Buehrle or the two relievers Miami manager Ozzie Guillen summoned to finish out this game. Bryce Harper went 0-for-3 with a walk and two strikeouts, whiffing on three pitches against lefty Randy Choate in the eighth. Espinosa was 0-for-4 with a pair of strikeouts.
And Michael Morse went 0-for-4 with three strikeouts for the second consecutive day, once again getting called out twice.
"He's just in between the fastball and the breaking ball," Johnson said. "He's a better hitter than that. He'll come around."
The Marlins didn't have much more success at the plate against Gonzalez. They just managed to execute a couple of times with men in scoring position.
Carlos Lee drove in Jose Reyes with a fourth-inning single, with Reyes dancing off second base trying to distract Gonzalez throughout the at-bat.
"You just got to learn how to minimize damage," Gonzalez said. "Can't let him go out there and cheat on you a little bit and try to get too much of a lead."
One inning later, Emilio Bonifacio beat out a drag bunt, took second on a sacrifice bunt and then scored on John Buck's single to right-center. That's all the Marlins needed to take a 2-1.
"If you've got speed, speed kills," Gonzalez said. "And that's exactly what they were doing. ... All they had to do was put the ball in play."
Thus spoiled what the left-hander hoped would be a happy homecoming. Pitching nine miles from his home in Hialeah, Fla., Gonzalez had more than 600 family members and friends in attendance for his first-ever start in Miami.
Even in loss, the hometown kid couldn't help but smile afterward thinking about the experience.
"It's just one of those things you dream about," he said. "And that's exactly how I felt."