Gio Gonzalez may not have helped his Cy Young chances tonight, but he put the Nats a huge step closer to the playoffs.
Gio threw five scoreless innings after a three-run first, earning his MLB-leading 21st win, while Michael Morsehit two home runs in support as the Nationals (95-61) flattened the Phillies, 7-3, reducing their NL East magic number to three.
Gonzalez is generally seen as one of the NL’s top pitchers, as he leads the league in wins, and is top-six in strikeouts, WHIP, and ERA. While he trails frontrunner R.A. Dickey in all of those categories except wins, he is sure to receive some votes, and has an outside shot at the award itself, if the old guard that weighs wins and playoff teams heavily has its way.
Beyond Gonzalez’s start, tonight’s game was another critical one in the Nats’ run at the division crown. To clinch, the Nats need any combination of at least three Nats wins and Atlanta losses. The Braves finished off their sweep of Miami tonight, winning their fifth in a row, and finish with six against the lowly Mets and Pirates, while the Nats finish against the contending Cardinals and the Phillies again. Three may seem to be easily attainable, but with these upcoming schedules, anything could happen.
Back to tonight, Gonzalez (W, 21-8) allowed all three runs in the first. After recording the first two outs with relative ease, he allowed a single and two straight walks to load the bases for rookie Darin Ruf, who put the Phillies on the board with a bases-clearing double. Gonzalez walked the next batter as well, but was able to get Erik Kratz to line out to end the inning. After the first, Gonzalez had thrown 37 pitches, only 17 of them strikes. From there on out, however, he was back in Cy Young form. In five innings, he allowed only four hits, walking none and striking out six, pitching efficiently enough to stretch what looked like a short outing into a six-inning effort. After Gio, Sean Burnett and Tyler Clippard combined to pitch two shutout innings, much needed confidence boosters for two guys who had been struggling recently. Drew Storen, who appears to have the upper hand in the battle for the closer job, pitched a clean ninth.
On the offensive side of things, Bryce Harper hit his 21st home run of the season in the top of the first, giving the Nats an early 1-0 lead. As his power surge continues, Harper is entering rarefied air, as one of only two teenagers ever to hit 20+ home runs, along with Tony Conigliaro. With three more steals, Harper would also become the second Nat in the 20/20 club this season, along with Ian Desmond.
After the Nats fell behind in the bottom of the first, Morse hit his first homer off of Phillies rookie starter Tyler Cloyd, cutting the deficit to 3-2. He added an RBI groundout in the fourth to tie it up, and Harper gave the Nats a permanent lead in the fifth with his RBI single to score Ryan Zimmerman. Morse broke the game open in the sixth with his two-run homer, a monster shot that landed in the Nats bullpen in left field. According to ESPN’s Jayson Stark, Morse’s home run was the first by a righty to land in the visitor’s bullpen since 2009, when Zimmerman accomplished the feat. Morse’s second home run marked his second multi-homer game this season, and the fifth of his career. He is also the sixth Nat to reach 15 home runs this season. The Nats capped their scoring in the seventh, when Eury Perez scored on a wild pitch after Zimmerman struck out.
Champ of the Game: Gio, who rebounded after a rough first inning and kept the Phillies in check, while also keeping the load off the bullpen.
For Philly, Ruf was 2-4 and hit in all of the team’s runs on one swing.
Chump of the Game: Also Gio, who allowed three runs in the first and put the Nats in an early hole.
For Philly, Cloyd allowed six runs on six hits and five innings, taking the loss.
Unsung Hero: Harper, whose two RBI and homer were overshadowed by Morse’s big game.
Next Game: Tomorrow in St. Louis. Jackson (9-10, 3.77) v. Wainwright (13-13, 4.02)