Gio, Nats move one step closer

Gio, Nats move one step closer
September 11, 2012, 4:31 am
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NEW YORK -- It was by no means his best performance of the season, but it didn't need to be. Thanks to some early support from what has suddenly becomes baseball's most power-laden lineup, Gio Gonzalez needed only navigate his way through six quality innings Monday night to emerge as baseball's first 19-game winner of 2012.

And the Nationals, despite failing to record a hit after the fourth inning, still managed to pull off a thoroughly convincing, 5-1 victory over the Mets that moved them yet another step closer to October baseball.

Combined with the Braves' loss in Milwaukee, the Nationals saw their lead in the NL East grow to 6 12 games with 21 to play, their magic number drop to 15. The number to secure their first-ever postseason berth dropped to single digits: 9.

"Great win," manager Davey Johnson said. "And I think we eliminated the Mets from the pennant race, didn't we?"

Indeed, they did. Two days after knocking the Marlins officially out of contention for the division title, they did the same to New York.

"That made me a little happy," said Johnson, who 26 years ago led that franchise to its last World Series crown. "That's why I was throwing everything but the kitchen sink out there."

Johnson didn't mess around in the first game of this series at Citi Field. Despite a late four-run lead, he used top setup men Ryan Mattheus and Drew Storen and then closer Tyler Clippard and even sent in a defensive replacement for Michael Morse in left field.

Not that there was ever much doubt about the outcome of this game. That's in part because Gonzalez was so good at overcoming his frequent bouts of wildness, pitching around five walks to hold New York to one run over six innings.

"He scared me," the manager said. "He had more balls, I think, in the fourth and fifth innings ... than strikes. He had great stuff, but just wasn't really consistent. Wasn't one of his better ones, but he did have great stuff and he did battle and give me six innings, so I was real pleased with that."

Gonzalez couldn't really pinpoint why his command was so off.

"I don't know. Couldn't find the strike zone, drank a little too much coffee," he said. "Don't know what it is. I mean, a bunch of different answers to that one."

When he needed to settle down and throw strikes, Gonzalez was eased by words of confidence from catcher Kurt Suzuki and shortstop Ian Desmond, who helped the left-hander navigate his way through a ragged night.

"The thing I'm talking about with Gio is learning how to pitch -- especially when you don't have your best command or your best stuff out there -- and getting the job done," Suzuki said. "That's the sign of becoming a pitcher."

It helps to pitch with a lead, which Gonzalez was afforded thanks to three early home runs from Suzuki, Zimmerman and Desmond. That gave the Nationals 33 homers over their last 13 games, a sudden surge of power for a lineup that is just now realizing its full potential.

"We've got a lot of guys that are very strong," Johnson said. "They're growing to be good hitters. Zim's already a great hitter. I think he's fully over that shoulder injury. That ball tonight was crushed, one of the hardest hit balls I've seen. Look up and down our lineup, there's a lot of guys that have a bunch of homers."

Included in that bunch is Desmond, whose two-run shot in the fourth was his 22nd of the year. That's more than any middle infielder in Washington baseball history has ever hit, and it duplicates the total number of homers the shortstop hit through the first two-plus years of his big-league career.

"I mean, I'm a better hitter period this year than I have been in the past," Desmond said. "I think I figured some things out with the help of Davey and just kind of trying to move forward, take steps in the right direction and become the player I think I can be."

Desmond's not alone. Gonzalez this year is becoming the pitcher many thought he could be, now on the verge of his 20th win of the season. And the Nationals as a whole are becoming the team many hoped they could be but couldn't have imagined they'd become so soon.

With each passing day, they move closer to making it all official.

"It's great," Suzuki said. "Our main focus is to just win ballgames. We don't worry about other stuff. We just have to focus on our task and still win ballgames, and at the end of the season, hopefully it'll get us in a good place."