By TAYLOR BECHTOLD
(AP) — Even while facing one of baseball’s top offensive clubs, the Washington Nationals continue to benefit from an outstanding rotation that has keyed their climb to the NL East lead.
That’s a trend they hope to keep alive as they give the ball to one of baseball’s hottest pitchers.
With Gio Gonzalez looking to extend his scoreless streak Thursday night, the visiting Nationals look for their ninth win in 11 games while sending the Baltimore Orioles to consecutive losses for the first time this month.
Washington starters have posted a 2.13 ERA over their last 10 games after giving up four runs over their last 28 innings. Stephen Strasburg and Doug Fister each held Baltimore (49-41) to two runs in seven innings in the first two games of this rain-shortened home-and-home set.
The AL East-leading Orioles had averaged 6.3 runs and batted .303 with 17 home runs over their previous nine games before finishing with seven hits – one homer – in Wednesday’s 6-2 loss.
“We’re getting some momentum together and that’s kind of where we’re at right now,” Fister said.
The Nationals (49-40) took over sole possession of first place following Atlanta’s loss to the New York Mets. Now they should be feeling confident about getting another solid outing with Gonzalez (6-4, 3.52 ERA) taking the mound.
Gonzalez hasn’t allowed a run in 22 innings going back to his start against Houston on June 18. He’s coming off his longest outing of the season, allowing four hits over eight innings in Saturday’s 13-0 win over the Chicago Cubs.
“He locates his fastball, works it to both sides of the plate,” Chicago manager Rick Renteria said. “And his breaking ball is really good. … It’s got sharp, late break, good tilt.”
The left-hander is 3-0 with a 1.38 ERA in four starts since missing a month due to shoulder inflammation, but he hasn’t fared well lately against the Orioles – or any AL team. He has a 5.30 ERA while dropping his last three matchups with Baltimore and is 0-3 with a 7.28 ERA in 10 interleague starts since the beginning of 2013.
All-Star Nelson Cruz is 0 for 10 against him and was hitless Wednesday after a three-game stretch in which he was 11 for 16 with two homers.
Manny Machado remained hot, though, going 3 for 4 and homering for the second straight game. He’s 12 for 21 in four games since serving a five-game suspension.
“I feel fine at the plate, seeing the ball well,” Machado said. “I’m just trying to keep this going.”
The Orioles will try to avoid consecutive losses for the first time since June 28-29 as they turn to Wei-Yin Chen (8-3, 4.12).
The left-hander was responsible for the first of those defeats when he surrendered five runs and seven hits – three home runs – over a season-low 3 1-3 innings in a 5-4 loss to Tampa Bay. But he regrouped to beat Texas last Thursday, allowing two runs over six innings in a 5-2 win.
Chen, though, is 0-2 with a 7.71 ERA in two career starts – both in 2012 – against the Nationals. Adam LaRoche is 2 for 3 with a home run against Chen, while Bryce Harper is 2 for 5 with a triple.
Harper is hitless in his last three games and 4 for 28 since coming off the disabled list.
Jayson Werth is 11 for 25 with three homers and 11 RBIs in his last seven games, while Wilson Ramos is batting .400 during a career-high 12-game hitting streak.
Updated July 9, 2014