Davey Johnson had Craig Stammen warming up in the Washington Nationals' bullpen. The Nats had a 6-1 lead over the Atlanta Braves after five innings in the finale of the three-game weekend series in Turner Field. Gio Gonzalez was up to 98 pitches. The Nats' 26-year-old left-hander had thrown 24 pitches in the third, giving up the only run the Braves had scored through five innings. Gonzalez needed just nine pitches in the fourth and he was coming off a 14-pitch fifth, but the Nationals' 69-year-old skipper wanted to go with his reliever.
Gonzalez told his manager he could go another inning. "I had Stammen warming up," Johnson told reporters after the game, but his pitcher said he was good to go back out. "Gio said he was fine, wanted to go back out there. I was going to go pitch by pitch with him, and everybody said he's feeling good, he's feeling great, he's throwing good."
Gonzalez went back out and threw a 93 mph fastball to Braves' third baseman Chipper Jones that the veteran switch-hitter fouled off, 0-1. The Nats' starter then threw four straight balls to Jones, walking him and putting the leadoff batter on. "When he walked the first batter," Davey Johnson explained, "That was my instinct to take him out, and I did not." Johnson left his left-hander in to face Dan Uggla, who took a six-pitch walk to put two runners on. Gonzalez was at 109 pitches overall with Freddie Freeman due up for Atlanta.
"I had to let him pitch to the left-hander," Johnson explained, in spite of the fact that Freeman had lined out to center on two hard-hit pitches that fell to Rick Ankiel in his previous two at bats. The Braves' 22-year-old first baseman was 0 for 5 vs Gonzalez overall at that point, and he entered the game with a .202/.269/.309 line in 45 games and 104 plate appearances against left-handers this season (.237/.296/.378 career), with just one of his nine 2012 home runs off left-handed pitching.
Freeman fouled off two 93 mph fastballs and spit on back-to-back 0-2 benders that both missed. Nats' catcher Jhonatan Solano set up inside. Gonzalez's 94 mph 2-2 two-seamer to Freeman came in belt-high outside and ended up seven rows back in the right field stands. Three-run HR. 6-4 game. Gio was done.
It was Freeman's 10th HR of 2012. It was the first HR a left-hander has hit off Gio Gonzalez this season, the fourth home run he's surrendered overall, with the last three coming in his last two starts. Before Gonzalez gave up two home runs in Coors Field in his fifteenth start of the year, and one Sunday in Turner Field in his sixteenth outing, he'd allowed just one home run in 84.2 IP over his previous fourteen starts. Gonzalez, who'd learned he'd been elected to his second-straight All-Star Game earlier in the day was out after 5.0 IP, 5 H, 4 R, 4 ER, 4 BB, 4 K's, 114 pitches and 64 strikes. Craig Stammen retired the three Braves he faced in order, but it was a two-run game after six.
Stammen threw 2.0 scoreless. Sean Burnett got through a 22-pitch eighth without allowing a run and the Nationals scored two in the top of the ninth to go ahead 8-4, ensuring Gonzalez would earn his 11th win of 2012 after Tyler Clippard pitched a 12-pitch, 1-2-3 ninth.
"If we lost that one," Davey Johnson told reporters after the game, "[It] would have been all on me, because I went against my instincts," in letting him go out and leaving Gonzalez in too long in the sixth. "It's 120° out there. I mean, I was sweating more in this one than I was yesterday. It was really hot. He threw  pitches after five, and I said, 'Man, go hitter-by-hitter with him,' and then everybody was telling me how good he feeling, and I said, 'Well, he's South Florida maybe, I'll go with him,' you know and then, 'BOOM!' I was killing myself."
Davey Johnson was willing to take the blame if things had gone wrong.
Gonzalez, as usual, would take none of the credit for the win, pointing to the bullpen, the run support, the defense. The four earned runs he surrendered pushed his ERA over 3.00 to 3.01 after 16 starts and 95.2 IP in which he's posted a 2.51 FIP, 39 walks (3.67 BB/9) and 112 K's (10.54 K/9). The win was Gonzalez's 11th of 2012. With all of the obvious issues with the win as a stat acknowledged, the 26-year-old left-hander acquired from the A's this past December in a 4-for-2 deal that sent four of the Nats' top prospects to Oakland, has more wins with one start left before the All-Star break than any Nationals' pitcher had all of last season. More than any starter had in 2010, 2009, '08... '07... Ramon Ortiz won 11 in 2006. Davey Johnson might not have made the right decision on Sunday afternoon, but his starter still got the win he had earned. The deal D.C. GM Mike Rizzo made this past winter is looking better and better every day.