There are few things that can make the Nationals feel better about the untimely loss of Stephen Strasburg to a right flexor mass strain, but Gio Gonzalez pitching like he did on Sunday is one of them.
The Nats lefty was singled out publicly by manager Dusty Baker on Thursday, the day Strasburg's injury diagnosis was announced, during his pregame press conference. He also approached Gonzalez privately.
"We talked the other day and I told him that he's very important in this equation, especially with Stras out. He responded," Baker said.
Indeed. Gonzalez tossed seven innings of one-run ball against the Phillies in the Nationals' 3-2 win on Sunday. It was a rebound performance for Gonzalez, who got shelled in his previous start. And it helped push the Nats forward with their third straight win, right before they get set to host the Mets in a big series this week.
"He was dealing," Baker said. "He seemed like a guy on a mission."
Gonzalez also had a recent chat with pitching coach Mike Maddux.
"Mad Dog and Dusty were like, ‘Hey we’re going to need you to kind of focus a little bit more.’ That’s exactly it. I just wanted to have a good bounce-back [start],” Gonzalez said.
The key for Gonzalez on Sunday was keeping his pitch count low. He got through seven innings on 92 pitches and that was set up by a quick first three frames in which he only needed 43 throws.
Gonzalez didn't rely on strikeouts like he has in the past. He had five, but most of his outs were on balls put in play.
Included in that were double plays that he induced in the second inning and the fourth.
"As long as I can keep going deep in the game like that, I’ll take some double plays and some groundballs to the middle infield anytime. These guys play great back there," Gonzalez said.
Both of the double plays for Gonzalez were started by Anthony Rendon at third. Rendon himself has seen a change in Gonzalez in the three years they have worked together.
"We actually talked about it a couple years ago," Rendon said. "When he was coming up, he always wanted to strike everybody out. He wanted to rear back and throw 95 and try to get those big outs and try to be that dominant power pitcher. But as he’s gotten older, he’s learned how to pitch even more. Every year, he’s learning. He’s getting those ground ball outs, so that’s taking him deeper into the game because his arm still feels strong. He’s not trying to overpower everybody."
Gonzalez now has a 3.59 ERA going back to the start of July, during a stretch of 13 starts. He can't himself solve all their problems with Strasburg out, but pitching like that will certainly help.
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