HOUSTON -- Gio Gonzalez went deep for the first time in two ways Wednesday night.
He crushed his first Major League home run, a two-run shot in the second inning, well into the left-field stands. And with the Nationals bullpen taxed and tired, he pitched his first nine-inning complete game, leading Washington to a 4-3 victory over Houston at Minute Maid Park.
The Braves beat the Phillies, so the Nationals maintained their four-game lead in the National League East as well as the best record in baseball behind the lefty's big night.
"It was like a Little League game for Gio. Hits the two-run homer, we win by one and he throws a complete game," closer Tyler Clippard said. "That's like Williamsport Little League stuff. It's awesome. What a day for him."
It was the second complete game of Gonzalez's career -- the first was an eight-inning loss with Oakland in 2010 -- and he took the mound with a familiar face behind the plate: catcher Kurt Suzuki.
The former A's battery worked together for the first time with the Nationals but acted as if nothing had changed; they even used their old signs. The only thing that felt different, they both said, were their uniforms.
"As soon as we went in the bullpen, we were on the same page," Gonzalez said.
"Same old Gio," Suzuki added. "Good movement, a lot better command and composure on the mound."
Gonzalez knew the Nationals needed that kind of showing from him, too. The bullpen pitched a combined 10 2/3 innings Monday and Tuesday, and Washington is a week away from finishing a 34-day stretch with 35 games. In all, Gonzalez gave up three runs on nine hits while striking out seven on 117 pitches.
"It was imperative," Nationals manager Davey Johnson said. "Gio couldn't have been any better. He pitched an outstanding ballgame. We hug a lot. I'm going to hug him more. My whole bullpen should hug him. What a great effort."
"He attacks with fastball away, and he started using his changeup and curveball, and his curveball tonight was unreal," added All-Star second baseman Jose Altuve. "We tried to get after him and swing early in the count, but his fastball moved a lot."
Thanks to Gonzalez, not one warmup pitch was thrown in the Nationals bullpen. The phone rang once, Clippard said, with two outs in the ninth inning. The Astros put runners on second and third after Bryce Harper's throw sailed past third baseman Ryan Zimmerman to a diving Gonzalez, who may have prevented the tying run from scoring with his heads-up backup play.
"At that point, they were like, 'Well, it's his game already, so never mind,'" Clippard said.
As for his first big league homer, Gonzalez said he tried not to enjoy it too much. He ran right into a first-pitch fastball from Armando Galarraga after Suzuki was hit by a pitch, drilling it deep to left. It was the third long ball by a Nationals pitcher this season, with Gonzalez joining Stephen Strasburg and Jordan Zimmermann.
Gonzalez came to Washington from the American League and has never really boasted about his ability as a hitter. He entered the night with four career hits in 56 plate appearances, but he got all of his first bomb.
"I was surprised, and I was happy," Suzuki said. "I got hit, and I was like, 'Come on, Gio.'"
Gonzalez delivered, giving the Nationals a 3-1 lead. They loaded the bases in the third and sixth but came out of both situations with nothing, ultimately finishing the night 1-for-12 with runners in scoring position. They added a run in the seventh, when Ryan Zimmerman doubled and scored on a throwing error by third baseman Matt Downs, and that would prove to be even more important after Ben Francisco's RBI single in the ninth.
There were other moments of frustration, particularly from Harper. Johnson thought the rookie's overthrow in the ninth was a product of his frustration at the plate. His average since the All-Star break dropped to .177 after an 0-for-3 performance Wednesday, and he got into it twice with home-plate umpire Angel Hernandez.
Harper was called out looking in the fourth inning then traded words with Hernandez, the first time this season he's taken out his frustration on someone other than himself. He came up again in the sixth, this time with the bases loaded.
He got ahead 3-0 and, after taking a 3-1 pitch low and outside from Xavier Cedeno, began running to first. But Hernandez called the pitch a strike. Harper came back, took another pitch low and away, and Hernandez rung him up. Harper declined to speak to reporters after the game.
"There were some questionable pitches, but he's pressing a little bit," said Johnson, who planned to keep Harper out of the starting lineup Thursday. "We put him in some situations that he likes to be in, and he didn't have good ABs, so we'll let him step back a little bit."
Frustrating as it may have been for Harper, it didn't hold back the Nationals, as Gonzalez took the game into his own hands.
"It means a lot. It's the first time in my career going nine innings like that," Gonzalez said. "In a different league, also getting a home run, today is just one of those where you smile about it. But tomorrow is a new day."