PITTSBURGH — Gio Gonzalez was in his first predicament at PNC Park on Wednesday when Starling Marte stepped into the batter’s box with a runner on third base and two outs in the third inning. The Washington Nationals could have decided to intentionally walk Marte. Gonzalez could have pitched around him. Gregory Polanco, an inferior left-handed hitter, was on deck. He was, on paper, the better matchup against the left-handed Gonzalez. But the Nationals didn’t evade the right-handed-hitting Marte, the Pittsburgh Pirates’ most dangerous offensive threat, in the scoreless game. Gonzalez instead challenged him.
Four pitches later, Marte launched a 2-1 fastball to straightaway center field for a two-run home run. It was, at the time, a blip for Gonzalez. He was enjoying his best start in over a month, and it was early. The Nationals had six innings to compensate for the mistake. It was a low-level task. But there was no countering the home run in a 2-0 loss. The Nationals (46-46) spent the afternoon failing to generate runs when given chances, and ultimately wasting a quality outing from Gonzalez as they sank back down to .500.
Gonzalez did not resemble the lost, beleaguered pitcher who took the ball every five days over the previous month — the one with an 8.14 ERA in six starts — immediately on Wednesday. He was as efficient as he’s ever been through the first two innings, needing just 18 pitches to convert six outs. He even doubled to lead off the third inning. He was a different player.
He encountered that game-deciding roadblock in the bottom of that frame, though, when Jordy Mercer smacked a leadoff double. He got two outs before Marte stepped to the plate.
The Nationals, meanwhile, were back to wasting prime scoring opportunities. They left two runners on base in the first against Pirates right-hander Trevor Williams before Gonzalez was left stranded after doubling, watching the top of the Nationals’ order — Adam Eaton, Juan Soto and Bryce Harper — fail to move him up a base. Two runners were then stranded the next inning.
Washington finally got its first hit with a runner in scoring in position in the fifth when Rendon singled to left field, but the line drive was hit too hard and too shallow to score Eaton from second base. Harper, who struck out four times on Tuesday, followed with a strikeout to end the inning with runners on the corners. Through five frames, Washington was 1 for 7 with runners in scoring position and had left seven on base. They would leave an eighth runner on base in the seventh inning as the Pirates bullpen mowed through their lineup.
While his offense sputtered, Gonzalez was doing his part to keep the Nationals in the game. The left-hander completed his outing with three scoreless innings after Marte’s homer gave Pittsburgh (43-49) the lead. He turned his left ankle jumping for a chopper hit over his head in the sixth, which hobbled him enough to warrant a visit from Manager Dave Martinez and trainer Paul Lessard, but stayed in the game to complete his outing — and his first half — by striking out Josh Bell with his 89th pitch. It was the first time he logged more than five innings since June 2, back when he boasted a 2.27 ERA and the Nationals’ rotation was the best in the National League.
Gonzalez looked like the No. 3 starter the Nationals need him to be down the stretch. He was efficient and effective. It was an encouraging sign for a club with the worst starting pitching in baseball since Stephen Strasburg landed on the disabled list over a month ago. But ultimately, it wasn’t enough for a victory because the Nationals’ offense kept faltering in pivotal spots. The success was rendered moot.