2-0 Nats becoming a headache for opponents

2-0 Nats becoming a headache for opponents
April 4, 2013, 12:00 am
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Gonzalez overcomes headache for strong game

As he warmed up for his first start of the season, Gio Gonzalez felt something he never before had on a baseball field: A massive headache.

Whether it was the frigid conditions at Nationals Park (45 degrees with a stiff wind at gametime), the stress of a season debut in front of the home crowd or just some freak of nature, Gonzalez took the mound with pulsating temples, severe enough he had to be careful not to clench his facial muscles as he delivered each pitch for fear of making the pain even worse.

"It started from the bullpen, and it ended up being right off the first batter," the left-hander said. "I was just working my way through there. I was just trying to stay focused and let the Advil take over and do what it does."

If Gonzalez can perform like this -- six scoreless innings, not to mention a solo homer to lead the Nationals to a 3-0 victory over the Marlins -- with a migraine, imagine what he might be able to do when he takes the mound feeling 100 percent.

And imagine how good the Nationals could be this year if they can continue getting the kind of dominant pitching they've received through Games 1 and 2, each of them shutout wins over Miami, only the 13th time in MLB history a club has opened a season like that. (Only the 1963 Cardinals managed to extend the streak to three games.)

"Definitely a huge confidence boost," catcher Kurt Suzuki said. "I think everybody knows how good they are. But for them to come out and show it like that the first two games, it kind of shows people that it's for real."

Indeed, a Nationals squad that entered the season with sky-high expectations has lived up to the billing through its first 18 innings of play. Stephen Strasburg set the tone on Opening Day with seven scoreless innings, and Gonzalez nearly duplicated the feat on Wednesday night despite his physical ailment.

Poor Jordan Zimmermann. He could allow one run over seven dominant innings in Thursday's series finale and still be blamed with inflating the Nationals' staff ERA from its current mark of 0.00.

"The bar's set for Zim," manager Davey Johnson said with a smile. "But there's always that competition among good pitching staffs, and I don't see this year being any different."

The Marlins, to be fair, are sporting a lineup devoid of any proven, big-league hitters aside from Giancarlo Stanton and perhaps veteran Placido Polanco. But that doesn't entirely diminish what the Nationals pitching staff has accomplished so far: 18 innings, zero runs, seven hits, four walks, 14 strikeouts.

The scariest part of it all: Few are surprised, given the track record and potential of this group of hurlers.

"The two guys we fired out there, I mean, that can happen on any given night," first baseman Adam LaRoche said. "We've all seen it. They just, they dominate. That's what they do."

Gonzalez didn't even have his most dominating stuff in this game. Plagued by less-than-perfect fastball command, he went to a full count on five different batters through the night's first three innings and racked up 91 pitches through six.

But the reigning NL Cy Young Award finalist was able to fall back on his bread-and-butter pitch -- a swooping curveball -- to get him out of what few jams he faced. That was especially true when Stanton was at the plate; Gonzalez struck the big slugger out twice on breaking balls, including on his final pitch of the night, with the tying runner in scoring position.

"It's definitely a huge thing, especially with a bopper like that," Gonzalez said. "You don't want that guy to change the game on you. One of those things where you just try to pitch him carefully and try not to give him something he wants."

The Nationals only led 1-0 at that point, and that one run came via the man on the mound, in most stunning fashion. Gonzalez frequently gets teased by his fellow pitchers for his lack of offensive prowess, but the man did own one career homer entering this game (clearing the short left-field fence in Houston last summer).

Career homer No. 2 was far more impressive, and shocking. Gonzalez tattooed a first-pitch curveball from Kevin Slowey deep to left, cutting right through the wind and finding the bleachers beyond the fence. As he rounded the bases to a thunderous roar from the crowd of 26,269, the gregarious Gonzalez couldn't help but smile. And he couldn't help but acknowledge the adoring masses when they coaxed him out of the dugout for a curtain call.

"Lucky swing," he insisted. "I don't want guys getting the wrong ideas now that I can hit."

Gonzalez may have tried to express humility, but his teammates know better.

"Everybody's already talking about having to hear about it the next two weeks," LaRoche said, rolling his eyes. "He's fired up."

The Nationals, though, have plenty of reason to be fired up right now. They're 2-0. They're getting dominant pitching performances. They're getting some timely hits. And they're not giving anyone reason to doubt all the lofty expectations placed on this club.

"The first two games, to see them go six, seven or eight innings without allowing a run, is just something special," center fielder Denard Span said. "If they do that, we're definitely going to have a real good chance to win."