By Marty Niland
After sweating out a pair of extra-inning wins against baseball’s worst team, the Houston Astros, the Washington Nationals, finally got a victory befitting their status as baseball’s best team.
Gio Gonzalez hit his first major league home run to support a complete-game effort, and Ryan Zimmerman had a pair of hits to lead the Nats past the Astros 4-2 on Wednesday night. Gonzalez, (14-6), allowed eight hits and a pair of walks, striking out six, as he moved into a tie for the National League lead in wins.
Gonzalez gave the Nats the lead for good in the second inning when he took the first pitch he saw from Astros starter Armando Galarraga (0-2) over the left field fence for his first career homer, a two-run shot that scored Kurt Suzuki, who was hit by a pitch with two outs. He became the third Washington pitcher to homer this season, joining Jordan Zimmermann and Stephen Strasburg.
Gonzalez had trouble with only two Houston hitters, leadoff man Jose Altuve, who went 2-for-4, and former Nat Justin Maxwell, who was 2-for-3. The two combined for Houston’s first run in the opening inning when Maxwell singled to score Altuve, who led off with a base hit.
The left-hander’s composure got away from him in the fourth inning when he allowed the Astros’ second run on a sacrifice fly by Carlos Corporan. That scored J.D. Martinez, who singled with one out, took second on a balk and then advanced to third on a wild pitch. Replays showed Suzuki’s throw beating Martinez to the bag, but umpire Mark Carlson ruled that Martinez slid in ahead of Zimmerman’s tag. Corporan then lofted a flay ball to right field and Martinez easily beat Jayson Werth‘s throw home.
After cruising through the eighth inning, Gonzalez appeared to be tiring in the ninth when he gave up a one-out single to Brandon Barnes and a two-out single to Ben Francisco, which scored Barnes with the third run. Altuve then singled and took second when Bryce Harper‘s errant throw to third got by Zimmerman, nearly going into the dugout but for Gonzalez’ backup. But with the tying run on third and the winning run on second, Gonzalez dug down and struck out Downs on a curveball in the dirt to seal the win.
In addition to his difficult night in the field, Harper had a bad time with home plate umpire Angel Hernandez in a two-strikeout performance. He was called out twice on pitches that he thought were outside. The first time, in the fourth inning, he argued with Hernandez before first base coach Trent Jewett intervened. The second time, with the bases loaded and two out in the sixth, Xavier Cedeneo went to a 3-0 count, and Harper started for first on a 3-1 pitch that was called a ball. Hernandez rang him up on the next offering, which Harper thought was low and away. He did not argue this time, but could be seen exclaiming, “No way!”
Harper walked in the first and scored the Nats’ first run on a balk. Their fourth run came in the seventh, when Zimmerman led off with a double against Chuckie Fick, took third on a wild pitch and scored when Werth reached on a throwing error.
With a 68-43 record, the Nats maintained their four-game lead in the NL East over Atlanta, which beat Philadelphia, and moved two games ahead of Cincinnati, which lost to Milwaukee, for the best record in the NL and the major leagues.
Champ of the Game: Gonzalez. Despite his composure problems ion the fourth, Gio bore down and made the tough pitches when he had to. He turned in the team’s second complete game of the season, and the first since Edwin Jackson‘s three-hit shutout of Cincinnati in April.
Chump of the Game: Harper. The kid has to learn to keep his cool. A rookie is not going to get the benefit of close calls on the corners, and he sealed his own fate when he tried to show up a veteran ump. He should have known the next pitch would be called a strike, even if it had bounced.
Unsung Hero: Suzuki. He handled Gonzalez superbly in the first time the two have worked together since the two were teammates in Oakland. It’s not hard to imagine him being Gio’s caddy next season if Wilson Ramos can return from his torn ACL.