SAN DIEGO — Gio Gonzalez did his best to save the Washington Nationals’ bullpen, which was down to four available pitchers Sunday afternoon.
Gonzalez almost made it through seven innings before manager Dusty Baker decided the left-hander had gone far enough on 121 pitches. Gonzalez allowed only five singles and struck out eight in 6 2/3 innings to lead the Nationals to a 4-1 victory against the San Diego Padres.
The NL East-leading Nationals won three of four against the rebuilding Padres.
“That was big. He took one for the team,” Baker said. “We needed him to go as deep as he did. We needed some innings so that was an outstanding performance by Gio.”
It wasn’t easy, either, because Gonzalez (12-5) threw 32 pitches in the first inning, when he allowed a run on two singles and shortstop Wilmer Difo’s throwing error.
“Pitch count was up, but you learn there’s always that one time you’re going to have to probably pitch one more, save one more out or one more inning for the bullpen,” he said. “These guys have been working hard for us. I don’t mind going out there and constantly keep throwing. Again, we have such a great bullpen that this day off is going to be huge for us.”
Gonzalez retired 15 of his last 18 batters, including eight straight until allowing a single to Manuel Margot with two outs in the seventh. Baker then turned to Joe Blanton, who struck out Jabari Blash to end the inning.
“I tried my best to give them seven,” Gonzalez said. “It was nice to see Joe go out there and get an out.”
Gonzalez walked only one.
“He’s been great all year,” San Diego manager Andy Green said. “His command is as good as I’ve seen it. The breaking ball was coming from back door all day.”
Sean Doolittle struck out the side in the ninth for his 11th save.
The Nationals are off Monday, which will give the staff time to rest. The bullpen was stressed because Max Scherzer was scratched from his scheduled start Friday night due to a sore neck. Including that night, when reliever Matt Grace made an emergency start and went 4 1/3 innings, the Nationals’ bullpen worked 13 innings in the first three games of the series.
The Nationals’ only loss in the series was Saturday night, when Stephen Strasburg looked good in his return from almost a month on the disabled list but took the 3-1 loss after allowing a two-run home run to Yangervis Solarte in the first inning.
“This series, the bullpen was absolutely unbelievable, and the starting pitching,” Washington second baseman Daniel Murphy said. “We didn’t necessarily swing the bats as well as we’d like, but the pitching staff did an unbelievable job. They’re the reason we won the series.”
Murphy drove in two runs as the Nationals took advantage of rookie Dinelson Lamet’s struggles.
Lamet (7-5) labored through 4 2/3 innings, allowing three runs and three hits while walking a season-high six and striking out eight. He walked three in the third inning, when Murphy hit a sacrifice fly to tie it at 1. Consecutive walks loaded the bases with two outs before Lamet struck out Anthony Rendon.
Lamet struggled again in the fifth, when the Nationals scored twice. Alejandro De Aza beat out a bunt for a leadoff single, stole second and scored on Murphy’s one-out single to right. Buddy Baumann relieved Lamet with two outs and allowed Adam Lind’s RBI double to center.
Green said he looked two ways at Lamet’s performance.
“One, you realize how good he can be. He walked six guys and effectively gave up one run through the first four innings. Very few pitchers can do that against a good offensive lineup. On the flip side of it, you can’t walk six guys and expect to win a baseball game.”
Nationals outfielder Jayson Werth (bruised left foot) and shortstop Trea Turner (broken right wrist) are scheduled to begin rehab assignments with Triple-A Syracuse.
After a day off, Nationals righty Tanner Roark (9-8, 4.70 ERA) is scheduled to open a three game series at Houston, which will counter with righty Charlie Morton (10-5, 3.69).
After a day off, Padres lefty Clayton Richard (6-12, 4.84) is scheduled to start the opener of a three-game series at St. Louis, which will counter with righty Lance Lynn (10-6, 3.05).
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