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Lefty Gonzalez a tough follow-up act for Nationals

By Alex Prewitt
Globe Correspondent / June 10, 2012
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Adam LaRoche has heard it all season. When he takes his spot at first base, opposing players repeat the same frustrated refrain.

There is absolutely no break in this Washington Nationals rotation.

“It can be a miserable feeling,’’ LaRoche said. “Especially if you’re going into an offense that’s struggling a little bit, and our staff definitely doesn’t help.’’

Righthander Stephen Strasburg brought a form of flashbulb dominance to Fenway Park Friday night, displaying an overpowering fastball that neared triple digits and a baffling breaking ball that helped him pile up 13 strikeouts in a Nationals victory.

In the Nationals’ follow-up act Saturday afternoon, a 4-2 Washington win, lefthander Gio Gonzalez pitched a tidy 6 1/3 innings in which he earned his eighth victory of the season.

Instead of cliff-diving curveballs and 91-mile-per-hour changeups, Gonzalez induced weak grounders for most of the afternoon, carrying a two-hitter into the seventh. He gave up three hits and two runs, lowering his ERA to 2.35.

“We’re facing good pitchers,’’ Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia said. “The last two guys were pretty darn good.’’

That is a sentiment emblematic of the Nationals’ ascent to baseball’s second-best record. Washington is 20-4 this season in games started by Strasburg or Gonzalez.

“The way I see it, you still have to go out there and pound the strike zone, especially against a great hitting team,’’ Gonzalez said. “My job was to minimize the damage as much as possible. What you can get out of it, just take it with a smile.’’

Nationals fans have grown accustomed to Gonzalez’s grin, a sign of his jubilance in his first year with the team. Personality-wise, he’s a foil to the stoic Strasburg, who displays an almost-mechanical demeanor but has been as equally brilliant.

“Not only with Strasburg, but with the whole rotation, we’re constantly trying to pick each other up,’’ Gonzalez said. “The way we work together, the way we’re communicating, it’s been exciting, it’s rare to find, especially right off the bat. It started right in spring training.’’

During batting practice Saturday at Fenway, fans called out praise at Strasburg as he jogged out for a light pregame toss in left field. He stared straight ahead, blocked out the noise, and kept running.

Meanwhile, to the side of the Nationals’ dugout in front of a roped-off area, Gonzalez had finished signing autographs for Red Sox and Nationals alike.

“They’re two entirely different pitchers, and two very talented pitchers,’’ Nationals manager Davey Johnson said. “It’s no picnic for the opposing hitters. Gio’s been exceptional, more so than anyone on the ball club about getting hits per innings, because he’s so hard to hit. The only time I worry about him is when he starts speeding up and rushing to the finish line.’’

That happened briefly Saturday, when the Sox appeared set to break through against a pitcher who entered the game with a league-low 5.4 hits per nine innings and ranked second with 11.4 strikeouts per nine innings.

In the seventh, before Johnson removed Gonzalez, the lefthander put runners on the corners after Will Middlebrooks walked and moved to third on a Mike Aviles single that Bryce Harper bobbled. Gonzalez had thrown six consecutive balls before Aviles took a fastball looking and then drove a pitch to right field.

But the Nationals’ bullpen limited the damage for Gonzalez, who in his past 10 road starts dating to last season is 7-1 with a 1.88 ERA.

“That’s been our strength all season,’’ Johnson said, “holding the opposition down, giving our offense a chance to go ahead.’’

The Nationals will go for the sweep Sunday, sending righthander Jordan Zimmermann to the mound. Though sporting a 3-5 record, he has a 2.82 ERA and a career-high 4.45 strikeout-to-walk ratio.

“It’s no picnic tomorrow, with Zimmermann,’’ Johnson said. “Or with any of our starters. That’s why we’re where we’re at, because they’ve done a great job at this point.’’

Alex Prewitt can be reached at aprewitt@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @alex_prewitt.

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