Another Gio Gem

Do the Nationals have the best starting rotation in baseball? That’s the question being asked by MLB pundits in the wake of a duel of lefties at Nationals Park on Tuesday — as Washington’s Gio Gonzalez outlasted Wandy Rodriguez, giving up just two hits over seven innings in leading the home towners to a 1-0 victory over the Houston Astros.

This was Gonzalez’ second win in a row, and second brilliant outing in a row. But the Nationals needed a series of dinks and dunks, including two fly balls that (arguably) should have been caught to secure the win. Houston’s Wandy Rodriguez was also brilliant, matching Gonzalez pitch-for-pitch before he also departed in the 7th.

“He was great,” Nats’ manager Davey Johnson said of the Gonzalez performance. “I was going to hold him to around 100 this early in the season. If a guy pitches in that kind of ballgame, I don’t give him an opportunity to lose it. He had a great changeup, good fastball, outstanding curve. He was tough on left-handers, and he made it look easy.”

The lone Nationals’ run came on a Jayson Werth double that was just out of the reach of center fielder Justin Maxwell, followed by an Adam LaRoche bloop single that dropped into left field. Werth scored — and the score held up as Tyler Clippard pitched the eighth and Brad Lidge snuffed out a ninth inning Houston rally. The Nationals are now 9-3, and still atop the N.L. East.

The Wisdom of Section 1-2-9: That old gang of ours is back for yet another season, but as skeptical and outspoken as ever. “I see Espinosa got a hit,” a late-comer said in the bottom of the second. “Let me guess, he’s facing a lefty and batting from the right side.” There were nods all around. “At some point someone has to tell him to just bat righty. You’d think that Davey or someone would study his splits from Double-A to the majors. He’s weak from the left side, always has been . . .”

The debate was joined: “They think he can develop into it,” a regular noted. “They say it’s a matter of confidence.” Universal harumphs greeted this. “What a crock. He only ‘developed into it’ in Single-A,” the skeptic intoned. “Go ahead, check it out. He scorches the ball hitting from the right side and he hits the hell out of lefties. He’s nothing on the other side, and I mean nothing . . .”

The talk, inevitably, turned to the state of the franchise. A young woman, gazing at the modest crowd, shrugged: “We have to expect this,” she argued. “They won’t really start to put them into the seats until school lets out. It’s not like other cities. People here keep their kids home on school nights.” There was general agreement, with one dissent: “It’s just not a baseball town,” one season ticket holder argued.

“I don’t think that’s it,” a seatmate responded. “If you take the average attendance from June on until school starts in September, this team draws well.” The Nationals were twentieth in attendance last year in the majors, another regular pointed out: “We were right behind the White Sox and ahead of Tampa Bay and Baltimore.” This brought an interjection. “Still, it could be better,” another 1-2-9 regular said. “I mean, look at this team. It’s a helluva team.”

1-2-9er’s debate Espinosa’s splits and the back-and-forth on attendance is a yearly topic, but no one disagrees on the subject of the club’s decision on hype. The standard, and breathless, introduction of players still roils the regulars — “now batting for Washington, Dannnyyyyyyy Espinosaaaaaa.” No one disagrees: it’s contrived. “They’ve just got to stop that,” a 1-2-9 regular says, shaking his head. “It’s bush league stuff. Save it for Potomac.”

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