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WSH@NYM: Gio strikes out six over six innings of work

In most baseball circles, the Nationals -- along with the Braves -- are widely considered the class of the National League East. At this juncture, the Marlins are hoping to move into their neighborhood.

While the Nats are regarded as a division favorite, the Marlins were one of the surprise stories of the season's first week.

Giancarlo Stanton and Casey McGehee energized a much improved offense, and Miami's pitching picked up where it left off a year ago. Now the club will be severely tested against a powerhouse Washington team, which features one of the best rotations in the game.

The Marlins enter the series with a half-game lead over Washington in the NL East. Both teams are off on Monday before opening a three-game set today.

Miami will go with right-hander Henderson Alvarez in the series opener, while Washington is turning to lefty Gio Gonzalez.

A year ago, the Marlins opened the season in D.C. and were swept in three games, scoring just one run. That was then. Now, their offense is producing.

Miami outfielder Christian Yelich said last year the Marlins seemed to play the Nats close, but were often frustrated at the end.

"I think we always played them tight until the end," Yelich said. "We didn't get blown out by them. We always had a shot until the seventh or eight inning, and would lose by a run or two. We know we can play with them. We've been confident with the way we've been swinging the bats and what we can do from an offensive standpoint. Hopefully our pitching will continue to do what they've been doing. If they do that, we have a chance to play with anybody."

In his first start of the season, Gonzalez pitched six innings, allowing one run on three hits. The lefty struck out six batters against the Mets last week, but he got off to a slow start in the bottom of the first inning.

Juan Lagares led off with a triple and later scored on a sacrifice fly by David Wright to give the Mets a 1-0 lead. It was smooth sailing for Gonzalez after that. He left the game after throwing 91 pitches.

"It's starts with his fastball," Nationals manager Matt Williams said. "So once he establishes his fastball command, everything else works off that. He did that tonight. He was able to find his command and use his other stuff, too."

In the fifth inning of that start, Gonzalez hit a long drive that looked like it hit the left-center-field wall, but second-base umpire Todd Tichenor correctly ruled it a home run. In the meantime, Gonzalez had no idea that he had hit a home run. He rounded the bases as if he was going for an inside-the-parker.

"I was trying to get a double out of it," Gonzalez said. "I saw the ball rolling. I saw the left fielder slowing down. I said, 'What is going on here?' And [third-base coach] Bobby [Henley] said, 'Keep going.' It was nice to have the catcher [Travis d'Arnaud] say, 'Hey, hey, slow down.'"

The Marlins view this series as a barometer to where they are after a strong homestand.

"I think it's a great test for us to kind of see where we are at," Miami manager Mike Redmond said. "We're just looking at it as another night. We're facing a great ballclub. We're facing their best three pitchers. Hopefully we'll go out there and match up."

Marlins: It all starts with pitching
The series will match Washington's top three starters against Miami's Nos. 3, 4 and 5 starters. Miami is using Monday's day off to give Jose Fernandez and the rest of the staff an extra day. So Fernandez will pitch on Friday at Philadelphia, and not at Nationals Park.

"At the end of the day, it comes down to pitching," Redmond said. "If we go out there and throw strikes and keep ourselves in the game and give our offense a chance to score some runs, we'll be in good shape."

Marlins pitchers posted a 2.43 ERA in the seven-game homestand.

Alvarez had a rough first start, giving up six runs (three earned) in three innings in a loss to the Rockies. The right-hander is 0-2 with a 4.43 ERA in four starts against the Nationals.

Nationals: Zimmerman's bothersome shoulder
Third baseman Ryan Zimmerman's status for the series is uncertain. He underwent an MRI exam on his sore right shoulder Sunday, the results of which revealed inflammation, but no structural damage. He pinch-hit and struck out in Sunday's 2-1 win over the Braves.

Worth noting:
• Giancarlo Stanton has collected at least one RBI in each of the seven games, joining Cliff Floyd for the second-most consecutive games with an RBI to start the season. Floyd had seven straight to open 2001.

• Jeff Baker had a pinch-hit RBI double off Padres lefty Alex Torres on Sunday. He is a career .298 hitter vs. left-handed pitchers.

• Miami has 19 doubles, the most in the Majors as of Sunday.

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