NEW YORK -- With the Braves inching closer in the National League East standings, the Nationals knew it was important to win the three-game series against the Mets before they face the Braves this coming weekend.
Washington is off to a good start in its effort to win the division, as Gio Gonzalez pitched six solid innings to become the Majors' first 19-game winner in a 5-1 win over the Mets at Citi Field on Monday night.
The Nationals are now 6 1/2 games ahead of the Braves, who lost to the Brewers, 4-1, on Monday. The magic number to win the NL East stands at 15.
"It's worth one. It was a good game," shortstop Ian Desmond said. "We came in and kind of picked up the pieces from [Sunday's loss to the Marlins] and battled back."
Unlike his previous two starts, Gonzalez wasn't dominant, but he did enough to break a tie with Tuesday's Mets starter, R.A. Dickey, for the big league lead in victories.
Gonzalez needs one victory to become the first player in Nationals history to win 20 games, and the first in franchise history since Ross Grimsley in 1978 to win 20 in a season.
"It's great that Gio won his 19th, but, boy, he scared me a lot. He had more balls than strikes [earlier in the game]," manager Davey Johnson said. "He was basically all over the zone."
Johnson went so far as to say that Gonzalez deserves to be a Cy Young Award candidate. Gonzalez most likely will battle Dickey the rest of the way for the award. It's a no-brainer to Johnson who should win the award.
"Dickey did get a lot of attention. But you are talking about a last-place club," Johnson said. "It's a little different when you are on top and getting all those things."
Don't talk to Gonzalez about the possibility of capturing the top award as a pitcher. All he thinks about is getting more wins for the Nationals.
"When you start looking at one thing, it drives you crazy," Gonzalez said. "I think the way we are going, it is having fun and continue to play our baseball. If it comes, it comes, but at the same time, I'm looking further than that. I want to continue to contribute to this team."
In the first three innings of Friday's game, Gonzalez didn't allow a hit but walked four hitters. While he couldn't explain why he was wild in the strike zone, Gonzalez said Desmond and catcher Kurt Suzuki calmed him down.
"I couldn't find the strike zone. ... I don't know what it is. There is a bunch of different answers to that one," Gonzalez said. "I'm grateful to have great teammates to help me [find] my way back in there. Zuk did a great job, Desi was helping me out a little bit out there and telling me to breathe a little bit."
The Mets were able to get to Gonzalez in the fourth inning, when Scott Hairston led off with his 16th home run of the season, over the left-center-field wall. Four batters later, the Mets had runners on second and third with two outs, but Justin Turner, pinch-hitting for starting pitcher Collin McHugh, flied out to right fielder Jayson Werth to end the threat.
Washington took an early lead by scoring three unearned runs in third inning. Suzuki hit what looked like the first out of the inning, popping up behind home plate, but catcher Kelly Shoppach dropped the ball and gave Suzuki new life.
On the next pitch, Suzuki took advantage and gave Washington a 1-0 lead by hitting a solo home run over the left-center-field wall.
"Those situations, you try to make him pay for it," Suzuki said. "I took a couple of steps, looked over my shoulder and I saw the ball pop out. I was like, 'Oh, yeah.'"
Said McHugh, "It should have been a home run. The ball was hit well and I left a slider in the middle of the plate. Those are two completely separate plays, and as a pitcher and as a professional baseball player, you've got to separate the two. There are going to be drops behind you and there are going to errors behind you all the time, but that doesn't take away from the fact that I made a poor pitch there, and he hit it well."
After Bryce Harper walked with two outs, Ryan Zimmerman hit a monster shot to center field to give Washington a three-run lead.
The following inning, Desmond gave the Nationals a five-run lead with a two-run homer off McHugh.
Gonzalez exited after six, and Ryan Mattheus, Drew Storen and Tyler Clippard combined to toss three shutout innings to finish off the win.
"I think we eliminated the Mets out of the [division] race," said Johnson, who managed the Mets from 1984 to 1990. "That made me a little happy. ... That was nice."
Bill Ladson is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, All Nats All the time. He also could be found on Twitter @WashingNats. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.