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AP - Sports

After a shaky debut, the Washington Nationals' Gio Gonzalez seemed far more comfortable in his most recent start.

That likely doesn't bode well for the scuffling Houston Astros, who haven't come up with many clutch hits of late.

Looking to build on his latest effort, Gonzalez takes the hill opposite fellow southpaw Wandy Rodriguez as NL East-leading Washington and Houston square off again in this four-game series Tuesday night in the nation's capital.

Acquired via trade from Oakland during the offseason, Gonzalez (0-0. 3.38 ERA) stumbled during his Nationals debut, giving up four runs, seven hits and three walks in 3 2/3 innings of a 7-4 win at Chicago on April 7. Gonzalez, though, bounced back from his shortest outing in well over a year, striking out seven over seven innings of two-hit ball Thursday in a 3-2, 10-inning win over Cincinnati.

"The changeup didn't work too much (in Chicago), but (Thursday) it broke more. His pitches were working pretty good," catcher Wilson Ramos told the team's official website.

Gonzalez, who won a career-best 16 games last season despite leading the majors with 91 walks, didn't issue any free passes to the Reds. If he can continue his improved control, the 2011 All-Star could be in for another big campaign.

"When we saw him in Oakland, he threw a lot of breaking balls and a lot of curveballs," Reds manager Dusty Baker said. "(Thursday) he threw a whole bunch of fastballs. Perhaps he changed his philosophy coming from the American League to the National League."

Gonzalez has never faced Houston (4-6) but might be able to pick up his first victory against an Astros team that's left 63 men on base in dropping five of six.

One day after going 0 for 9 with runners in scoring position in a 5-4, 11-inning loss at Miami, Houston struggled to get much going against Stephen Strasburg during Monday's 6-3 loss at Washington (8-3). The Astros were limited to three singles over the first five innings and finished 2 for 14 with runners in scoring position.

"We've just got to keep on (plugging away)," outfielder Travis Buck said. "It's going to happen. We're not just a team that when we get down, we fold ... Even though we're young, we continue to scrap away."

Steve Lombardozzi collected a career-high four hits and drove in two with Davey Johnson giving second baseman Daniel Espinosa the night off. Ryan Zimmerman went 2 for 4 with a couple of RBIs while Ramos hit his first homer.

The Nationals will look to keep things going against Rodriguez (0-1, 2.38), who is 5-1 despite an ugly 4.92 ERA in the series. Rodriguez is 3-0 with a 4.11 ERA in five career starts at Washington.

Rodriguez labored through five innings during his most recent outing, surrendering four runs and six hits in Wednesday's 6-3 loss to Atlanta. Rodriguez went 7-7 with a 3.62 ERA over 17 road starts in 2011.

Mark DeRosa, Adam LaRoche and Zimmerman are a combined 21 for 64 (.328) with four home runs off Rodriguez.

Espinosa, who could be back in the lineup Tuesday, is 7 for 36 this season and 6 for 39 (.154) lifetime against Houston.

Zimmerman, in contrast, is batting .425 over a nine-game home hitting streak versus the Astros. His .369 average in the series since 2007 is his highest against any opponent.

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