Davey Johnson asked a lot of Gio Gonzalez last night in Houston. Throw at least seven innings to give an exhausted bullpen a break. No, wait, make that a complete game. On 117 pitches, two shy of your career-high. With the tying run on third and the winning run on second during the bottom of the ninth.
Oh, and while you're at it, would you mind clubbing your first career home run as well?
If it sounds like too much to ask of one player in one night, it probably was. Sometimes, though, it takes a brilliant (and gutsy) individual performance to carry a ballclub on his shoulders to a victory that wouldn't have been possible without him.
And in that regard, Gonzalez really showed the Nationals something during yet another tense win over the hapless Astros, this time by a score of 4-3.
The left-hander probably shouldn't have been on the mound in the bottom of ninth. Certainly he didn't appear to have anything left in the tank after he allowed a two-out, RBI single to Ben Francisco. With the lead now down to one run and the winning run now at the plate in the form of All-Star Jose Altuve, you kept looking to the dugout for the sight of Johnson strolling to the mound, signaling to the bullpen and taking the ball from his starter.
Except there wasn't anybody warming in the bullpen at that point. Drew Storen had pitched on three consecutive days and was deemed unavailable for this one. Same for Tyler Clippard, who had pitched five of the last six days.
No, this game was entirely in the hands of Gonzalez, win or lose. He continued to make things interesting when he surrendered a two-out single to Altuve -- though Bryce Harper really made it interesting with an ill-advised and wild throw to third base, allowing Altuve to advance to second. All of a sudden, the Astros were one base hit away from stealing this game.
But that's when Gonzalez dug deep for something extra when he needed it most. He struck out Matt Downs on four pitches: a pair of 94 mph fastballs followed by a pair of curveballs.
It was the first time in his career Gonzalez completed nine innings, and it was perhaps the most significant of his 14 victories as a National. Not because he was facing his toughest opponent of the season (he certainly wasn't). But because his team needed him to step up and pitch like an ace, and he responded in kind.
Johnson may be doing everything he can to keep his starters from going more than seven innings, but he needed to know Gonzalez could do it if asked.
You can bet the manager will remember this effort come late-September or perhaps October if confronted with the choice of giving Gonzalez the hook or leaving him in with a chance to finish what he started.