Bryce Harper and Michael Morse put on a show for the paid crowd of 44,070 at Citizens Bank Park Thursday night as the Washington Nationals beat the Philadelphia Phillies, 7-3.
Gio Gonzalez (W, 21-8, 2.89) proved why he’s been named a contender for this year’s Cy Young Award. He may not have posted perfect numbers against the Phillies, but he fought through jams and worked into a rhythm as the game progressed, allowing only six hits in three runs in six innings.
For the second night in a row, Harper put the Nats on the board first with a home run—this time, a solo shot to right center field off rookie right-hander Tyler Cloyd (L, 2-2, 4.91). With the at-bat, Harper inched within three home runs of tying the all-time record for home runs by a teenager in a single season—24—set by Tony Conigliaro in 1964.
At the beginning of his stint, Gonzalez didn’t look much like a 20-game winner. After forcing Jimmy Rollins and Kevin Frandsen to ground out, he allowed Chase Utley to single and gave up back-to-back walks to Ryan Howard in John Mayberry. Phillies youngster Darin Ruf took advantage of Gonzalez’s struggle to find control and ripped a double to center, scoring Utley, Howard and Mayberry to give the Phillies a 3-1 lead.
At the top of the second, Michael Morse answered for the Nats with a towering home run to left, bringing the Nats within a run. Ian Desmond nearly kept the momentum going with a sharp liner up the third baseline, but Kevin Frandsen made a diving catch for the out instead.
Gonzalez pitched himself into a sticky situation again in the second, giving up back-to-back singles to Rollins and Frandsen with just one out. As would be the case the rest of the night, however, Gonzalez regained his command in time to force Utley to fly to right and Howard to ground to third to end the inning.
In the top of the fourth, the Nats proved they don’t always rely on the long ball. Ryan Zimmerman led off with a double into the right-field corner and Adam LaRoche battled back from an 0-2 count to line to center and advance Zimmerman to third. Zimmerman scored on a chopper by Morse to Rollins and the Nats tied the game, 3-3.
The same strategy worked for the Nats in the fifth as Espinosa walked and advanced on a bunt by Gonzalez. Amidst the typical chorus of boos in Philadelphia, Jayson Werth drew a walk and Harper’s single to shallow left drove in Espinosa to put the Nats back in the lead, 4-3.
It didn’t take long for Washington to tack on insurance runs. Adam LaRoche led off the inning by hammering a double off the center field wall. Morse “the Beast” followed up by rocketing a home run into the Nats’ bullpen, where Tom Gorzelanny made the perfect catch in his cap as the Nats high-fived one another.
In the top of the seventh, pinch-hitter Mark DeRosa singled and the Nats subbed in their designated runner, Eury Perez. Werth and Harper drew back-to-back walks and on Zimmerman’s strikeout, Perez came home on a pitch in the dirt to give the Nats their final score, 7-3.
Sean Burnett, Tyler Clippard and Drew Storen each looked sharp in their outings as the Nationals lowered their Magic Number for the NL East to just three.
THE TAKEAWAY: Gio Gonzalez proved why he is the most reliable pitcher in the Nats’ rotation. While Thursday night wasn’t his best outing, he proved he can fight through poor starts to find a rhythm and he battled back from behind in the count in high-pressure situations to keep the Phillies’ runs to a minimum.
THE GOOD: With October baseball just days away, Bryce Harper is still hot. He went 2-for-4 on the night with a home run (21), two RBI and one walk.
Michael Morse’s hand certainly seemed to be okay. His first-inning shot to left towered into the seats and his opposite-field home run in the sixth was measured at 451 feet, according to ESPN’s Hit Tracker.
THE BAD: While the Nats proved they could drive in runs through aggressive base running and infield choppers, they still managed to leave 14 on base and went just 2-for-11 with runners in scoring position.
THE UGLY: Gio Gonzalez appeared to misread a sign from catcher Kurt Suzuki. He lobbed one over the plate that caught Suzuki offguard and bounced out of the batter’s box. The officials scored it a passed ball, but it could have easily been scored a wild pitch, despite being called a strike.
STATISTICS: 9 hits, 4 BBs, 2-for-11 with RISP, 14 LOB.
NEXT GAME: Friday at 8:05 p.m. against the St. Louis Cardinals. Edwin Jackson (9-10, 3.77) vs. Adam Wainwright (13-13, 4.02)