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Gio, Nats move one step closer

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Gio, Nats move one step closer

NEW YORK -- It was by no means his best performance of the season, but it didn't need to be. Thanks to some early support from what has suddenly becomes baseball's most power-laden lineup, Gio Gonzalez needed only navigate his way through six quality innings Monday night to emerge as baseball's first 19-game winner of 2012.

And the Nationals, despite failing to record a hit after the fourth inning, still managed to pull off a thoroughly convincing, 5-1 victory over the Mets that moved them yet another step closer to October baseball.

Combined with the Braves' loss in Milwaukee, the Nationals saw their lead in the NL East grow to 6 12 games with 21 to play, their magic number drop to 15. The number to secure their first-ever postseason berth dropped to single digits: 9.

"Great win," manager Davey Johnson said. "And I think we eliminated the Mets from the pennant race, didn't we?"

Indeed, they did. Two days after knocking the Marlins officially out of contention for the division title, they did the same to New York.

"That made me a little happy," said Johnson, who 26 years ago led that franchise to its last World Series crown. "That's why I was throwing everything but the kitchen sink out there."

Johnson didn't mess around in the first game of this series at Citi Field. Despite a late four-run lead, he used top setup men Ryan Mattheus and Drew Storen and then closer Tyler Clippard and even sent in a defensive replacement for Michael Morse in left field.

Not that there was ever much doubt about the outcome of this game. That's in part because Gonzalez was so good at overcoming his frequent bouts of wildness, pitching around five walks to hold New York to one run over six innings.

"He scared me," the manager said. "He had more balls, I think, in the fourth and fifth innings ... than strikes. He had great stuff, but just wasn't really consistent. Wasn't one of his better ones, but he did have great stuff and he did battle and give me six innings, so I was real pleased with that."

Gonzalez couldn't really pinpoint why his command was so off.

"I don't know. Couldn't find the strike zone, drank a little too much coffee," he said. "Don't know what it is. I mean, a bunch of different answers to that one."

When he needed to settle down and throw strikes, Gonzalez was eased by words of confidence from catcher Kurt Suzuki and shortstop Ian Desmond, who helped the left-hander navigate his way through a ragged night.

"The thing I'm talking about with Gio is learning how to pitch -- especially when you don't have your best command or your best stuff out there -- and getting the job done," Suzuki said. "That's the sign of becoming a pitcher."

It helps to pitch with a lead, which Gonzalez was afforded thanks to three early home runs from Suzuki, Zimmerman and Desmond. That gave the Nationals 33 homers over their last 13 games, a sudden surge of power for a lineup that is just now realizing its full potential.

"We've got a lot of guys that are very strong," Johnson said. "They're growing to be good hitters. Zim's already a great hitter. I think he's fully over that shoulder injury. That ball tonight was crushed, one of the hardest hit balls I've seen. Look up and down our lineup, there's a lot of guys that have a bunch of homers."

Included in that bunch is Desmond, whose two-run shot in the fourth was his 22nd of the year. That's more than any middle infielder in Washington baseball history has ever hit, and it duplicates the total number of homers the shortstop hit through the first two-plus years of his big-league career.

"I mean, I'm a better hitter period this year than I have been in the past," Desmond said. "I think I figured some things out with the help of Davey and just kind of trying to move forward, take steps in the right direction and become the player I think I can be."

Desmond's not alone. Gonzalez this year is becoming the pitcher many thought he could be, now on the verge of his 20th win of the season. And the Nationals as a whole are becoming the team many hoped they could be but couldn't have imagined they'd become so soon.

With each passing day, they move closer to making it all official.

"It's great," Suzuki said. "Our main focus is to just win ballgames. We don't worry about other stuff. We just have to focus on our task and still win ballgames, and at the end of the season, hopefully it'll get us in a good place."

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Papelbon's struggles continue, Ramos and Rendon heating up for Nats

Papelbon's struggles continue, Ramos and Rendon heating up for Nats

Leftover notes and observations from the Nats' 7-6 loss to the Cleveland Indians on Tuesday night…

Papelbon's rough ninth: Jonathan Papelbon crumbled again in the ninth inning by allowing three runs to the Indians, who saw Francisco Lindor single home the winning run against Oliver Perez in the bottom of the ninth. It was a crushing loss for the Nats and their second reminder in as many games that their bullpen may be a problem, perhaps even one worth addressing before the trade deadline.

Papelbon's timing is at least good in that he's not doing this next week, that it's coming before Monday's non-waiver trade deadline. There is still time for the Nats to add a reliever, though if they want to bring in a new closer, the price will likely be high. One has to wonder if the last few days have changed the Nats' thinking when it comes to parting with one of their top prospects in order to shore up the backend of their bullpen for the pennant race.

Papelbon has now allowed seven earned runs in his last two outings. He took the mound on Sunday with a 2.56 ERA, but now has a 4.45 mark after two straight uneven spots.

Ramos hits No. 15: Wilson Ramos appeared to be cooling off earlier this month, but lately has picked up the pace. On Tuesday he not only homered in the sixth inning - his second in as many games - he also doubled and later scored in the fourth. It was Ramos' fourth multi-hit game in his last six outings. He has reached base in 13 straight appearances.

Ramos' homer was his 15th of the year, which puts him one away from the career-high he set back in 2013. This is the fourth time in his career that he's reached 15 homers in a season.

Rendon's No. 12: Despite missing two games last week with the flu, Anthony Rendon continues to swing a hot bat. He went 2-for-4 on Tuesday night with a homer, two RBI and two runs. His home run was his 12th of the season, a two-run shot that scored Ramos in the top of the fourth. After going 0-for-14 in four games split by the All-Star break, Rendon is 9-for-28 (.321) with three homers and five RBI in the seven games since.

Rivero's streak snapped: Felipe Rivero gave up his first earned run in 11 appearances on Tuesday to snap a 17 1/3 scoreless innings streak, the longest for a Nats reliever this season. Rivero found trouble early, as Jason Kipnis led off the bottom of the eighth with a double and Lindor followed with a single. Mike Napoli then brought Kipnis home on a double play groundball. 

Lindor shows his stuff: The Nationals got their first look at one of the best young players in baseball. At just 22 years old, Lindor has become a superstar shortstop in a very short period of time and on Tuesday demonstrated in several ways what all the hype is about. Not only did he single in the game-winning run, he also made a terrific play in the field in the top of the seventh. Lindor fell down while gloving a hard groundball by Ben Revere, got up and threw a strike to first for the out.

Lindor also singled in the bottom of the third on a Gio Gonzalez pitch that came in chin-high. It was a pitch no one should ever swing at, but he smoothly poked a single to opposite field. Vladimir Guerrero would have been impressed. Lindor, who bats .307 on the season, had three hits in the game.

[RELATED: Papelbon again implodes in ninth as Nats lose to Indians]

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Near trade deadline, former National Drew Storen again on the move

Near trade deadline, former National Drew Storen again on the move

It was back in January that the Nationals acquired Ben Revere from Toronto in exchange for reliever Drew Storen. The former National won't even spend a year north of the border. 

With the trade deadline approaching, Toronto made a move on Tuesday to send Storen and cash considerations to Seattle in exchange for pitcher Joaquin Benoit. 

Storen posted a 6.21 ERA for Toronto in 33.1 innings this season. Benoit has a 5.18 ERA in 24.1 innings. 

MORE NATIONALS: PAPELBON IMPLODES AGAIN IN LOSS

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Papelbon again implodes in ninth as Nats fall to Indians in walk-off loss

Papelbon again implodes in ninth as Nats fall to Indians in walk-off loss

Postgame analysis of the Nats' 7-6 loss to the Cleveland Indians on Tuesday night at Progressive Field.

How it happened: After Jonathan Papelbon imploded in the ninth inning on Sunday, manager Dusty Baker took some of the blame, saying he should not have pitched his closer for the third straight day. Papelbon denied he was tired, but Baker felt it was worth mentioning.

Despite that, Baker went back to Papelbon on Tuesday night in a key spot. It came after an off-day, but Papelbon did not look himself against the Indians. His fastball was regularly topping out at 89 miles per hour and Cleveland jumped all over it.

Papelbon allowed a leadoff walk then an RBI double to Tyler Naquin. Ryan Zimmerman then committed a costly throwing error to first on a Chris Gimenez sacrifice bunt to score Naquin. And then, with Oliver Perez on the mound and the bases loaded, young superstar Francisco Lindor singled in the winning run for an Indians walk-off victory.

Papelbon has now failed the Nats in the ninth inning of two consecutive games. The one positive may be that he's done this before the Aug. 1 trade deadline and not after it, as the Nats' need for bullpen help is becoming more and more obvious.

The Nats had a solid day on offense, led by Trea Turner in the leadoff spot. He singled, walked, stole a base, reached on an error and scored a run in another all-around effort. The rest of the Nats' lineup followed suit, as Wilson Ramos hit his 15th homer of the season, Anthony Rendon clubbed his 12th and Jayson Werth added two doubles to extend his streak of reaching base to 29 games, matching a career-high. 

The Nats knocked Danny Salazar - one of the AL's best pitchers - out after just four innings of work. He gave up four runs (3 ER) on four hits and two walks. Nats starter Gio Gonzalez overcame a rocky first inning to go 6 1/3 frames with three runs (2 ER) allowed.

The Nationals began their long road trip with a tough, 7-6 loss and have now lost six of their last eight games. 

What it means: The Nats fell to 58-42 on the season. With the Marlins' win on Tuesday, the Nats are now just four games up in the NL East.

Turner mostly good in CF, great at plate: Known for his prodigious speed on the base paths, apparently Trea Turner is also a fast learner.

With Zimmerman back from the disabled list, the Nationals rookie played center field for the first time in a big league game on Tuesday night and the early returns were overall quite good. Turner for the most part looked competent at his new position, despite having one key moment where he showed his inexperience. Perhaps more important, the Nats kept his bat and his legs in their lineup and again saw the impact he can provide at the top of their order.

Turner wasn't tested much in center field on Tuesday night, but he did make one very impressive play in the first inning on a long flyout by Jose Ramirez. Turner covered over 112 feet according to StatCast and caught the ball on a full sprint just a step away from the right-center field wall. It was a difficult play and he made it look easy, registering a 97.8% efficiency score. Turner also made another catch at the warning track in the seventh inning. He displayed good instincts around the wall at a park he's never played before. 

That was the good. There was also some bad, including a mistimed dive attempt in the bottom of the eighth that resulted in a Jason Kipnis double. Turner dove while running in towards the infield, only to have the ball bounce in front of him and then over his head. Kipnis later scored on a double play ball hit by Mike Napoli.

Gio starts slow, rebounds: Tuesday will go down as another step in the right direction for Gonzalez, but it didn't start that way. He ran into major trouble in the first inning by throwing 13 balls in his first 17 pitches. That stretch included a leadoff walk to Rajai Davis and then a ground-rule double by Kipnis. Davis scored after that on a passed ball and Kipnis came home on a Carlos Santana sacrifice fly. Gonzalez barely got out of the first inning and was lucky only two runs came across.

After that, though, he was better. Gonzalez held the Indians scoreless for the next five innings before leaving in the seventh. He finished with three runs allowed (2 ER) on five hits, two walks and four strikeouts. The second earned run charged to Gonzalez came on a tough-luck play. Gonzalez exited after giving up a one-out double to Abraham Almonte. Almonte then scored on a Lonnie Chisenhall groundball hit against Blake Treinen that bounced off Rendon's glove and into center field.

Gonzalez has now allowed eight earned runs in his last four games across 24 innings since July began. That equals an even 3.00 ERA, which is solid considering his struggles through May and June.

Zimmerman returns: Zimmerman came back, but didn't carry over the momentum from his hot-hitting minor league rehab games. Zimmerman went 0-for-4 and left three men on base. That was in addition to his mistake in the field.

Scary moment: There was an unfortunate sequence in the first inning on Tuesday night, as a fan in the crowd at Progressive Field was hit in the face by a Daniel Murphy line drive. The 75-year-old woman was quickly rushed to the hospital, but it sounds like she suffered some serious facial injuries at the very least.

Up next: The Nats and Indians play the finale of their two-game interleague series with a 12:10 p.m. start on Wednesday afternoon. Stephen Strasburg (13-1, 2.83) will square off with right-hander Carlos Carrasco (7-3, 2.31).

[RELATED: Former Nats 1st rd. pick set to make MLB debut with Mets]

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