In his first rehab appearance, Gio Gonzalez didn't look like himself. Thursday, he looked like the hurler expected to be a big part of Washington's rotation this year.
The Nationals All-Star hurler fanned seven and gave up a run on two hits over four innings as Class A Advanced Potomac defeated Winston-Salem, 3-2. The win clinched the first-half Carolina League Northern Division crown for the P-Nats.
Gonzalez issued four walks and did not figure into the decision. The 28-year-old left-hander recorded four ground-ball outs and exited after 79 pitches, one short of his pitch limit.
"His fastball was coming out of his hand well," manager Tripp Keister said. "From his first start to this one, he felt more comfortable on the mound. He threw some really good changeups. First outing, he didn't have as much confidence in that. He looked really comfortable."
In his previous Carolina League appearance June 6, Gonzalez allowed eight runs on seven hits over 3 2/3 innings. Thursday was a complete turnaround for the two-time All-Star, who has been out since May 17 with shoulder inflammation.
"He looked a lot more comfortable and was able to make pitches with his secondary stuff," Keister said. "Obviously there's a curve coming back from injury, but he definitely seemed more comfortable letting the ball go. That was really encouraging to see, that was what I was looking for."
Expected to be one of the anchors in the Nationals rotation, Gonzalez struggled in his two starts before hitting the disabled list, allowing 12 runs over 7 1/3 innings. Keister felt that he saw a pitcher ready to return to the Majors.
"He looked ready to go," he said. "I don't know what their plans are for him. He looked like the guy I've seen before, that was encouraging. [Heading back] seemed like it would be the next step."
In a postgame press conference, Gonzalez confirmed he feels ready to return to Washington.
"I'm ready to slot myself in there," he said. "My arm feels great and I feel like I'm ready to go up there and do my part as a starting pitcher."
Gonzalez was gone from the game when the Nationals rallied to clinch the title. Jeff Kobernus wreaked havoc on the basepaths, stealing second and third base with one out in the eighth inning before scoring on catcher Mike Marjama's throwing error.
The clinch was sealed when Lynchburg fell to Salem, 6-0, less than an hour later.
"This group has worked really hard," Keister said. "We came together after having a tough road trip and some guys were frustrated. I'm proud of this group, they give an honest effort and I couldn't be more excited for them."
Gilberto Mendez improved to 3-3 after tossing a perfect inning of relief and Robert Benincasa set down the side in order in the ninth for his 11th save.