Gonzalez's homer lifts Rockies over Nats

Gonzalez's homer lifts Rockies over Nats

WASHINGTON -- On paper, Colorado's 4-3 win over the Nationals on Tuesday night may just look like a well-played, well-pitched nail-biter of a game that gave the Rockies the comfy cushion of at least one more night alone atop the National League Wild Card race.

But those who watched the game couldn't help but be aware that they were also watching the continued blossoming of two of the most exciting young stars in the game right now.

Left fielder Carlos Gonzalez homered for the third game in a row and did it at the perfect time, leading off the eighth inning to snap a 2-2 tie. It was the seventh homer of the year for Gonzalez and his fifth in his past seven games.

And right-hander Ubaldo Jimenez (11-9, 3.41) continued to dazzle on the mound, allowing two runs on seven hits in eight innings, walking one and striking out five, to raise his August record to 4-0.

Jimenez, 25, gave the Rockies (66-53) six or more innings in a start for the 21st time in a row in his career debut at Nationals Park -- and with his parents and other family members on hand for the game.

In just his second full season after going 12-12 with a 3.99 ERA in 34 starts for the Rockies in 2008, the native of the Dominican Republic impressed manager Jim Tracy, not just with his explosive fastball, clocked in the mid-upper 90s, but perhaps even more with his control of that pitch, since elusive command has been his Achilles' heel in the past.

"He was close to being unhittable tonight," Tracy said. "He had much better fastball command tonight than I can recall for awhile, and could have very easily had eight scoreless up there. What I was waiting to see was how consistently it would go over the plate and it started to show up for strikes an awful lot."

Tracy was not the only manager in the park who was impressed by Jimenez, who has won his past five decisions dating back to July 17.

"He has a great arm -- I tell you, I don't know if we have seen anything like that all year," said Nationals manager Jim Riggleman. "There have been a couple of great pitching performances against us, but as far as the quality of the stuff they were throwing up there, nobody has thrown like that kid has today."

Gonzalez, whom Tracy has installed as the team's new leadoff hitter for the time being, at least against right-handers, continued to hit the ball hard, and though he had just one hit to show for it on the night, it was a big one.

Gonzalez greeted southpaw reliever Sean Burnett (2-3) to open the eighth inning with a mammoth blast into the Nationals' bullpen in right field..

"I don't think I have to change anything because when you're doing good you want to keep doing the same things," said Gonzalez. "I don't care if I'm hitting one or eight [in the batting order], I just try to do my best and fight every single pitch. And even more now because we're in the race and it's time to shine, it's time to do great things."

The 23-year-old from Venezuela, acquired along with closer Huston Street and southpaw Greg Smith from Oakland in November 2008 for All-Star outfielder Matt Holliday, has been coming on stronger than ever of late, hitting .400 in August coming into the game to raise his average to .285 on the season.

"Offensively, I don't know if there's a guy hitting the ball much harder now per at-bat than Carlos Gonzalez," Tracy said. "He's gained a real good understanding of what's a strike and what's a ball and with the bat speed he possesses, if he makes opposing pitchers throw the ball over the plate, he has a chance to do special things every time he walks up there.

"We have one very special player on our hands and we've believed that all along," Tracy said. "There's not a facet of the game you can talk about that he doesn't excel at."

The Rockies got on the board first when right fielder Brad Hawpe hit a one-out solo homer in the second inning off starter Craig Stammen. It was Hawpe's second homer in as many games, after he'd gone since July 19 since his last long ball.

But the Nationals (43-76) answered back in the bottom of the inning, taking a 2-1 lead on an RBI double by Stammen and an RBI single from Nyjer Morgan.

In fact, it seemed that it was only the very top and very bottom of the Nationals order that was able to get to Jimenez, with the 3-4-5 spots of Ryan Zimmerman, Adam Dunn and Josh Willingham going a collective 1-for-11. Dunn was 0-for-4 and struck out three times, improving Jimenez's average against cleanup hitters this season to .111 (8-for-72).

Washington, which saw a three-game winning streak end, would hold onto the lead until the sixth inning, when Hawpe drove in his second run of the game in less dramatic, but no less effective fashion. With one out and the bases loaded, he grounded sharply to first base, allowing Dexter Fowler to score the tying run from third and knot the score at 2.

"I'm sure he would have wanted more in that bases-loaded, one-out situation, but there's an at-bat right there where the worst thing that can happen to you is if you're walking the bat back to the dugout yourself and nothing good happened," Tracy said. "He put the ball in play. It's fair. It's a quality team at-bat. It produces you a run."

Another player who made a big difference in Tuesday's outcome was second baseman Clint Barmes, who not only delivered what would prove to be the difference in the game with his 19th homer of the season, a solo shot to right field in the ninth inning, but he also stopped the Nats from scoring the potential go-ahead run in the seventh with a diving play on a hard-hit ball by Zimmerman for the final out with a man on third.

Street allowed a ninth-inning run before closing out the game for his 30th save of the season.

The win ensured that Colorado would sit alone atop the Wild Card standings for at least one more night, as the teams sitting behind them, the Giants and the Marlins, both won to stay one and two games back, respectively.

Lisa Winston is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.