It was only a few weeks ago that it seemed as though Gio Gonzalez had turned a corner. The lefty starter was perhaps the most consistent member in the Nationals' rotation, quietly stringing together quality starts over a month-and-a-half stretch. From June 21 to August 11, he sported a 5-0 record with a 1.48 ERA and 1.21 WHIP.
But much like the rest of the staff in the season's second half, the title of "most reliable starter" has been tough to lock down.
Gonzalez' uneven outing in Wednesday night vs. the Padres was his third straight loss, allowing five runs (four earned) in just 4 2/3 innings. It was the second time in his last three starts that he's been unable to get through the fifth.
So did he show anything that was indicative of his recent struggles?
"Not tonight," manager Matt Williams said. "He worked through the first inning and had a little trouble. He couldn’t get through the next time around with those guys in the middle of the order."
Indeed, the Padres' big boppers gave Gonzalez trouble in the third inning. After Yunel Escobar's botched double play attempt that kept the inning alive, Matt Kemp hit a two-run double to right center field and Justin Upton launched a two-run home run to left center to put the Nats down 4-0 and in chase mode the rest of the game.
"The double was a good pitch and the ball was hit to right field," Gonzalez said of the Padres' rally. "So I think the [pitch] was down and away where I wanted it to be. Good hitter. Tip your cap."
And much like Williams, Gonzalez didn't seem to view his night as the continuation of a concerning trend.
"Nothing [troubled me out there]," he said. "Not really anything. I was pounding the strike zone. I was getting ahead of the hitters. Maybe walked two guys. Other than that, typical start."
That may be, but the Padres had the first batter reach base in four of the five innings Gonzalez worked, making him working from the stretch before he could establish a rhythm. That's not a new problem, either. This season, leadoff men are hitting .326 against him -- highest among Nats pitchers with at least 15 starts.
"It’s traffic for the pitcher out of the stretch," Williams said. "The rhythm is certainly different. We talk about it with regard to our offense all the time. It just makes it more difficult. It puts pressure on."
Pressure might be the right word to use for an up-and-down rotation that was expected to be the game's best before the season started. Since the All-Star break, Nats starters are 12-17 with an ordinary 4.28 ERA -- 14th best in the majors. Meanwhile, the surging Mets own the fourth-best ERA since the break at 3.30.
Gonzalez may have had an off night, as he and Williams suggested. But given the widening gap between the two clubs in the NL East race, every hiccup becomes increasingly costly each night one occurs.