PITTSBURGH — Gio Gonzalez stood on the mound at PNC Park in the bottom of the first inning, the afternoon off to as bad a start as the Nationals could possibly have imagined.
Bryce Harper had been ejected after arguing a check-swing call in the top of the inning. Starling Marte had crushed Gonzalez's very first pitch into the left-field bleachers. Ryan Zimmerman had committed another throwing error on a routine grounder. And now the bases were loaded with nobody out, the Pirates threatening to blow this series finale open before the Nationals would even know what hit them.
The situation was ripe for disaster, especially for an emotional pitcher like Gonzalez, who has been known to let a bad situation turn worse. Experience, though, has taught the 27-year-old lefty how to better handle such situations.
"When you get older, you get a little more experience, you start figuring out things, little-by-little," he said. "I think a younger me would have probably spiraled out of control and tried to be too much or tried to do too much."
Instead of trying to do too much, Gonzalez did only what he could do: Take back control of this ballgame. He wriggled his way out of that first-inning jam, then dominated the rest of the way to lead the Nationals to a hard-earned, 6-2 victory over Pittsburgh.
"I'll tell you what: Gio, unbelievable job keeping his head on right there," first baseman Adam LaRoche said. "He could've easily gone the other way, gone south. He kept his head up, kept throwing good pitches. We snuck out of that inning, and then he was great the rest of the way."
And because of it, the Nationals managed to turn what at the beginning of the week looked like a frustrating road trip into something far more positive. They won four of their last five, improved to 17-15 and head home feeling like they've turned an important corner.
Gonzalez was front-and-center during this trip. Rocked in Atlanta for five runs over four ragged innings on Tuesday, he bounced back on Sunday and held the Pirates to two runs in six innings, retiring 15-of-17 batters during one prolonged stretch after that near-disastrous first frame.
"After I got the three outs, you see your dugout lit up with joy and excitement, you could see it just felt like the momentum shifted with that," he said. "You want to go out there and attack the strike zone, and that's what I didn't feel like I was doing."
Gonzalez's teammates supported him with several clutch hits, overcoming the early and shocking loss of their best all-around player: Harper, who was ejected by third base umpire John Hirschbeck on a check-swing call to end the top of the first. Harper held his hands and the bat out in disbelief at the call, prompting Hirschbeck to mimic the same motion back as the veteran umpire walked toward the 20-year-old outfielder. When Harper slammed his helmet and bat to the ground, Hirschbeck gave him the heave-ho.
"I was actually just being nice," Hirschbeck told a pool reporter. "Even the hands up in the air is showing me up, to me. I could have ejected him right then. I was nice enough to leave him in the game. And then he slammed his bat down. And then on top of that, he slammed his helmet. I had no other recourse, really."
Manager Davey Johnson, while admitting the initial call was correct, wasn't happy Hirshbeck engaged his player in argument.
"I told John: 'Just call him out and turn around,'" Johnson said afterward. "Don't keep looking at him."
Harper, being very cautious with his words, wouldn't elaborate on what he said or did on the play.
"I'm just glad we got the W, and I wasn't the reason we didn't," he said.
The Nationals made sure Harper's ejection would become a footnote thanks to two clutch home runs from previously struggling hitters: Danny Espinosa and Tyler Moore.
Espinosa, who entered the day hitting .180, turned on a hanging curveball from left-hander Wandy Rodriguez in the top of the fourth, belting a two-out, two-run homer that put the Nationals ahead 3-1.
"I finally made a little bit of an adjustment and started getting the bat head out a little more," he said.
Four innings later, Moore turned a nip-and-tuck, one-run game into a comfortable, four-run lead for the Nationals with a three-run bomb off reliever Bryan Morris. The Pirates had just intentionally walked LaRoche — as clear a sign as any that the veteran first baseman has finally snapped out of his season-opening slump — to set the stage for Moore, who had struck out in all three of his previous at-bats and had struck out twice on Saturday with the bases loaded.
"You can't blame them," Moore said of the intentional walk to the batter in front of him. "I would've done the same thing. Rochie is swinging a good bat, and I was struggling early. Yeah, it does fire you up a little bit. I'm just glad it happened."
With that, the Nationals wrapped up a weekend series win and perhaps set themselves on a better course in the bigger picture. Saturday morning, things were so bad Johnson felt the need to hold a rare team meeting. Two days and two victories later, his club appears to be back on track.
"The meeting really had nothing to do with it," Johnson said. "This is a great ballclub, and it's got a lot of good makeup on it. ... I'm glad to get that out of the way and I don't have to worry about another one until hopefully late in the season."