PITTSBURGH - In a season that hasn't gone nearly as smoothly as his 2012 joyride, Gio Gonzalez found himself in trouble early.
Starling Marte led off the bottom of the first inning with his fourth home in the last five games and the Pittsburgh Pirates then loaded the bases with no outs. It seemed the 1-0 lead would soon grow against the Washington Nationals left-hander, a 21-game winner last season.
However, Gonzalez escaped the big mess without allowing another run, and the Nationals went on to beat the Pirates 6-2 on Sunday at PNC Park for their fourth win in the last five games.
Once the Pirates loaded the bases, Gonzalez struck out Russell Martin and Michael McKenry, then got Brandon Inge to ground out.
"Gio did a great job of keeping us in that game after the tough start," Nationals manager Davey Johnson said.
"Give Gio a lot of credit, he really put his foot down there," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle. "We had the chance to run him out of the game or at least significantly add to the lead and he stopped us cold."
Gonzalez (3-2) allowed two runs and five hits while walking two and striking out five. It was just Gonzalez's third quality start -- six or more innings yielding three or fewer earned runs -- in seven outings this season.
While Gonzalez has struggled at time this year, he said he didn't lose confidence because his teammates helped him stay calm while facing the full-blown jam.
"All the infielders came in to offer encouragement in the first inning and (catcher Wilson) Ramos really did a good job, to his credit, of helping slow the game down for me," Gonzalez said. "The Pirates came out hacking and the game was speeding up. When the game speeds up, you can't get too aggressive and go head-to-head with their aggressiveness.
"Everyone was so excited when we got back to the dugout after the first inning. You could feel the momentum shift and I knew it was going to be a good day."
Gonzalez (3-2) got support from second baseman Danny Espinosa and right fielder Tyler Moore, who was subbing for injured Jayson Werth.
Espinosa hit a sacrifice fly in the second inning and a two-run homer, his third of the season, in the fourth to put the Nationals ahead 3-1. Moore's three-run homer off rookie reliever Bryan Morris, his first of the year, made it 6-2 in the eighth, breaking the game open.
Moore, who hit 10 home runs in 75 games as a rookie last season, came into the game hitting .171, and Espinosa's average was .180.
Hurdle walked Adam LaRoche intentionally to face Moore in the eighth. LaRoche was 4-for-7 with four walks in the three-game series to that point while Moore had struck out six times.
"I don't blame him," Moore said of Hurdle. "I would have walked [LaRoche], too. I'm just glad I was able to make the move backfire."
Hurdle would not second guess himself.
"LaRoche had been on base all weekend and seeing the ball well," Hurdle said. "We decided to go right-on-right there with Morris against Moore and it didn't work out."
Ramos had three of the Nationals' 11 hits and Roger Bernadina had two after entering the game 1-for-25 for the season.
Pittsburgh's Wandy Rodriguez (2-2) also had a quality start but lost for the second straight time. He gave up three runs and six hits with one walk and seven strikeouts.
Martin drove in Pittsburgh's other run with a double in the sixth that sliced Washington's lead to 3-2.
Yet it all came back to Gonzalez containing the damage in the first inning as he helped send the Pirates to their third loss in the last four games.
"It felt awful to come out of the first inning with only one run," McKenry said. "I know Russ wanted to get a big hit. I know I wanted to get a big hit. It's not how we drew it up ourselves. Gio is a great pitcher, but I'm not going to give him any more credit than he deserves because I got myself out."
NOTES: Washington left fielder Bryce Harper was ejected in the top of the first inning for arguing an appealed third strike with third-base umpire John Hirschbeck. Harper tried to check his swing on a 2-2 pitch from Rodriguez and home-plate umpire Bob Davidson asked Hirschbeck for help on the call. Hirschbeck ruled the pitch a strike to end the inning and Harper threw up his arms in disgust. ... Nationals center fielder Denard Span (bruised left foot) was back in the lineup and went 1-for-5 with a stolen base after sitting out Saturday, the first game he has missed this season. ... Werth (strained right hamstring) missed his third straight game but expects to be back Tuesday night for the opener of a two-game home series against Detroit. ... Pittsburgh right-hander Charlie Morton (Tommy John reconstructive elbow surgery in June 2012) was diagnosed with tightness in the back of his right shoulder after undergoing an MRI on Saturday. Morton left his rehab start on Friday for Class AAA Indianapolis after three innings because the shoulder did not feel right. Morton will throw on flat ground for at least a few days and the Pirates hope he will be able to pitch off a mound again by the weekend.