ATLANTA -- The Nationals on Sunday night showed once again why they are the best in the National League East: dominating pitching. Left-hander Gio Gonzalez was outstanding as the Nationals defeated the Braves, 7-2, at Turner Field.Washington swept the three-game series and finds itself 2 1/2 games ahead of the Mets.
Gonzalez got off to a slow start in the first inning, throwing 28 pitches and allowing an RBI groundout to Martin Prado. Still, Gonzalez was determined to go seven innings and told manager Davey Johnson as much. Lately, Nationals starters have been throwing too many pitches early in the game and going no more than five or six innings.
But Gonzalez dominated after the slow start, retiring 19 of the next 21 hitters and striking out 10, his sixth career game with 10 or more strikeouts.
"What a game Gio pitched," Johnson said. "He had a little rough first inning. I thought, 'Here we go again. We are going to have a high pitch count,' and then he settled in."
Gonzalez was humble when talking about his outing, giving the credit to his catcher, Jesus Flores, and the defense behind him.
"I was trying to pound Flores' glove and go after the hitters," Gonzalez said. "The Braves are good hitters. I was trying my best to avoid contact, sometimes let them put it in play. The defense came in, the catchers did a great job. It was a good team win today."
The Nationals received a scare in the seventh inning when Gonzalez's cleat got caught in the dirt while pitching to second baseman Dan Uggla. Johnson and assistant athletic trainer Mike McGowan came to Gonzalez's aid, but Gonzalez insisted that he was OK.
"I was thinking, 'Now he is getting a cramp,' and he is just laughing," Johnson said. "I said, 'Man, you sure there is nothing wrong?' He said, 'Yeah, I just caught my cleat.'"
Gonzalez is clearly the best starter in the Nationals rotation, going 7-1 with a 2.04 ERA. He also leads the Major Leagues in strikeouts with 79. Did Johnson think Gonzalez was going to be that kind of pitcher after the team acquired him from the Athletics for four prospects?
"I knew he was a good pitcher and I know he made the All-Star team with Oakland," Johnson said. "I thought he was a little wilder. He basically showed good command all year. He used that changeup off his fastball. He commands both sides of the dish."
Now that he was no longer pitching in a big ballpark like the Oakland Coliseum, Gonzalez never thought his season would be any different, thanks to the players that are currently surrounding him.
"This is all credit to the catchers. They do a great job," Gonzalez said. "[Pitching coach Steve] McCatty does a great job, just going out there and helping us out and keeping the rotation nice and loose."
Gonzalez was behind, 2-0, when the Nationals rallied to tie the game in the fourth inning against right-hander Brandon Beachy. With runners on first and second, Flores singled to left, scoring Adam LaRoche. Gonzalez then helped himself by hitting a sacrifice fly to left field, bringing Ian Desmond home.
The Nationals then put the game away in the sixth inning. After Danny Espinosa was hit by a pitch to lead off the frame, Beachy was taken out of the game in favor of Livan Hernandez, who was hit hard by his former teammates.
With runners on first and second, Flores, who would later leave with a strained right hamstring, picked up his second RBI with a single to left. Two batters later, Steve Lombardozzi doubled to right field, scoring Rick Ankiel and Flores. Ryan Zimmerman then singled to right, scoring Lombardozzi.
Two innings later, Bryce Harper swung at an 0-1 pitch from Hernandez and hit a monster home run over the right-field wall for his fourth home run.
"There are no excuses," Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said after his team dropped to four games back of the Nationals. "Look at their [list of players on the] DL and look at the DL guys coming in tomorrow with the Cardinals. I'll take my injured guys over [the Nationals'] injured guys because our guys are just a day here or a day there. Some of their injuries are significant."
The Nationals are 5-1 during their road trip and now face the Marlins, who sit 3 1/2 back in the division, starting on Monday afternoon. Johnson is confident his team will do well.
"[The Marlins] have been playing better than anybody in the division. We'll be on our 'A' game when we go down there. It's difficult coming in at 3:00 a.m. and we have a day game. That's what happens when you become a popular team [on ESPN]."
Bill Ladson is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, All Nats All the time. He also can be found on Twitter @WashingNats. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.