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Gio bested by Buehrle

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Gio bested by Buehrle

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."

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Inside Baseball: The Nationals' bullpen is currently bad and potentially great

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USA TODAY

Inside Baseball: The Nationals' bullpen is currently bad and potentially great

Welcome to Inside Baseball. Here, we're taking a quick peek at what's going on ... inside ... baseball. 

We're almost a month into the MLB season, and that sweet noise you hear is the sound of sample sizes starting to become reliable! So far, the Red Sox are very good except for the nights they're getting no-hit, Derek Jeter's Marlins and their .227 winning percentage "aren't accepting a losing culture," and Mike Trout is well on his way to another historically-great 3rd place finish in the MVP race. 

AT NATS PARK

As it stands today, the Nationals are sitting in 4th in the NL East. It's early, they haven't been healthy, etc. etc., whatever. It hasn't been great. Their pitching staff features the best rotation in baseball paired alongside one of the worst bullpens in baseball. No bullpen in baseball has a higher homerun/flyball percentage (18%) than the Nationals. Only two teams - the Rockies and the Royals - strand runners on base at a lower clip than the Nationals (64.0 LOB%). If you really want to get into the weeds, their Win Probabilty and Clutch numbers tell a grim story too. 

Don't smash that panic button yet, though (maybe just lightly rest your hand on it?). There are a few reasons to believe that maybe the bullpen isn't actually as bad as they've been the first month.  They're striking out hitters at an elite level so far - only the Brewers and the Yankees have better K/9 and K% numbers than the Nats.  If you take take a look back at which bullpens led the league in strikeout numbers over the last handful of years, you'll see a *lot* of playoff teams. In the three-true-outcome era, having a bullpen that gets swings-and-misses is inarguably valuable. The Nats have that. 

Taking a look at their individual numbers, it's clear there's an excellent backend hidden somewhere in the bullpen right now. Sammy Solis' ERA is almost four runs higher than his FIP (fielding-independent pitching), a clear sign that Solis has pitched well but been a victim of the Nats' shoddy defense. The same goes for Ryan Madson, whose ERA sits at almost seven despite an FIP under three. Assuming that bullpen roles become more established once the data catches up, the Nats' bullpen could look a lot better in a month or two. 

AROUND BASEBALL

What you should know: Manny Machado's half-season showcase is going swimmingly. He's slashing .360/.447/.708 with eight homers through the first month or so of games. He's posted a 208 wRC+, which is a fancy way of saying he's been 108 percent better than league average at the plate so far. He's been the most valuable hitter this season and the second-most valuable player overall. Meanwhile, the Orioles are 6-17 and already 12 games out of first place in the AL East. It hasn't even been a month yet. Is this the year the the MLB trade deadline is exciting?!

What you should watch: Angels @ Astros (4/24-4/25)

Shohei Ohtani is pitching on Tuesday night, so that's reason enough. But, if you need more, there's also Mike Trout, the defending World Series champs, and Justin Verlander pitching on Wednesday. It also happens to be a battle between the best two teams in the AL West, separated by half a game for first place. If there's such a thing as exciting April baseball, it looks like this. 

Player of the week: I know we already talked about him, but no one's been better than Manny Machado over the last seven days. He's hitting .500/.586/1.208 with five homers during that span. After being bit by historically bad luck during the first half of last season, Machado has been putting up monster numbers ever since:

Random baseball gif: 

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Nats give up monster HR, drop series-opener with Giants

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USA TODAY Sports

Nats give up monster HR, drop series-opener with Giants

SAN FRANCISCO  -- Mac Williamson hit a two-run homer in the sixth to lead the Giants past the Washington Nationals 4-2 on Monday night.

Chris Stratton (2-1) struck out five over 6 2/3 innings, allowing two runs and four hits.

Williamson, playing his first home game at AT&T Park this season after being called up during the recent road trip, connected with a deep drive to right-center off Shawn Kelley after he relieved starter Gio Gonzalez (2-2). Gonzalez walked Brandon Belt to end his day before Williamson crushed the first pitch he saw from Kelley.

The 464-foot shot by Williamson is the furthest homer by the Giants this year, topping his previous 434-foot homer Friday after he was promoted to face the Angels in Anaheim. Earlier Monday, Williamson drove in his team's initial run on a fielder's choice in the fourth.

Only three home runs have travelled further in 2018, according to MLB StatCast: Franchy Cordero (489), Avisail Garcia (481) and Marcell Ozuna (479)

San Francisco kicked off a 10-game homestand by winning back-to-back games for only the second time this season and first since April 4-7. The Giants were coming off their first series victory of the season against the Angels.

The Nationals' runs came on a pair of sacrifice flies, by Howie Kendrick in the third and pinch-hitter Andrew Stevenson in the seventh.

Gonzalez allowed three runs and four hits, struck out four and walked three in five innings.

In his only other start against Washington, Stratton threw 6 2/3 scoreless innings with 10 strikeouts last Aug. 13.

Hunter Strickland, who brawled with Bryce Harper during Washington's last visit to AT&T Park in late May 2017, finished for his fourth save in six chances. Harper didn't bat in the ninth.

NATS TRADE COLE

Washington traded right-hander A.J. Cole to the New York Yankees for cash. The 26-year-old Cole was 1-1 with a 13.06 ERA in four games for the Nationals and was designated for assignment last week.

BAKER REUNION

Ex-Nationals manager Dusty Baker, who guided Washington to back-to-back NL East titles before his firing after last season, visited the ballpark to see his former club.

Did he plan the visit in advance?

"Maybe," Baker said, grinning.

Nats pitcher Stephen Strasburg hustled out to give Baker a big hug behind the batting cage.

"What's up Dusty, how you doing?" Strasburg said.

Baker also visited with third base coach Bob Henley, the loan holdover from his coaching staff.

Baker is now working in an advisory role to Giants CEO Larry Baer while getting to watch son, Darren, play his freshman college season at California in Berkeley.

"I am good," Baker said. "How bad can it be between Cal, San Francisco and Sacramento?"

TRAINER'S ROOM

Nationals: OF Adam Eaton, on the disabled list retroactive to April 9 with a bone bruise in his left ankle, won't be rushed back until he is completely pain-free. "When you see him in the lineup he'll be ready," manager Dave Martinez said. "He's coming along. When we get him back this time we don't want any issues." ... OF Brian Goodwin remains in Florida with pain in his bruised left wrist.

Giants: LHP Will Smith is eagerly anticipating his return from Tommy John surgery that cost him all of last season, and he could come off the DL as soon as Tuesday. He pitched twice for Class-A San Jose and three times so far for Triple-A Sacramento. He is scheduled to throw consecutive days for Sacramento on Wednesday and Thursday then another short outing Sunday. "We're close. We're getting there," Smith said, noting it will be "awesome. I'm ready to go." ... RHP closer Mark Melancon (flexor strain in pitching elbow) is scheduled to play catch during Thursday's off day. There is no timetable for his return, manager Bruce Bochy said. ... LF Hunter Pence (sprained right thumb) did some hitting and is scheduled for early batting practice Tuesday.

UP NEXT

Giants lefty Ty Blach (1-3, 4.10 ERA) will face the Nationals for the first time in his career when he pitches the middle game of the series opposite right-hander Tanner Roark (1-1, 3.24).