WASHINGTON -- In the top of the ninth inning Tuesday night, the Nationals led the Astros by one run with one out, Marwin Gonzalez on first base and closer Rafael Soriano on the mound.
Soriano delivered a 1-0 fastball to Matt Dominguez, who sent a slow ground ball to the left side of the infield. Ian Desmond charged the ball, scooped it up with his backhand and fired a throw to second base to get Gonzalez, the lead runner. One batter later, Soriano forced Jonathan Villar to fly out to center field to preserve the victory.
Desmond's athletic and cerebral play capped an impressive defensive night for the shortstop, who still leads the Nationals in errors but has shown substantial improvement in the field over the last few weeks.
"Ian's a good shortstop," Ryan Zimmerman said Tuesday night. "He'll tell you he's gone through some bad times. I think the most impressive thing is how he deals with that, and just continues to work. ... You see the plays that he made tonight, and the last week or so the way he's been playing, and you realize how special of a player he is. That's what makes him so fun to watch."
Manager Matt Williams said Desmond is one of the hardest workers on the team, and practices moving left, right and in for ground balls on a daily basis. And while Williams said he hasn't seen any differences in Desmond's technique, the shortstop's persistent pregame routine has delivered results.
For example, in the top of the third inning Tuesday night, Dexter Fowler ripped a sharp ground ball up the middle. This time, Desmond moved to his left and fielded with his forehand to prevent the single. He then stepped on second base and beat the speedy Fowler with a throw to first for an inning-ending double play.
"That's something he's got to work on and he does that every day," Williams said. "It's easy to say 'well it's hot' or 'my legs don't feel good today' and whatever it is and just take ground balls right at you. But then you're not necessarily prepared that game."
Gio returns from DL with five-inning outing
WASHINGTON -- Nationals left-hander Gio Gonzalez made his first start since May 17 and did not figure in the decision as Washington edged the Astros, 6-5, on Wednesday night.
Gonzalez missed more than a month of action because of left shoulder inflammation. Gonzalez got off to a good start against Houston and had a 2-0 lead after three innings.
However, Gonzalez had problems in the fourth inning, when the Astros scored four runs to make it a 4-2 game. Matt Dominguez highlighted the scoring with a two-run single. Gonzalez lasted five innings and allowed the four runs on five hits. Gonzalez wanted to pitch an extra inning, but manager Matt Williams wouldn't allow it.
"I felt like it was not one of my strongest outings, but it was a step in the right direction," Gonzalez said. "I'm off the DL is a great sign. The first few innings, I was trying to get the arm on top. In the fourth inning, I got ahead of the hitters, but I couldn't put them away. … It's something that I learn from, adjust the cobwebs and get back at it. It's definitely a work in progress."
Gonzalez said his shoulder problems are behind him and he hopes to be a contributor the rest of the year.
"I'm ready to go, keep pitching and I have to keep moving forward," Gonzalez said. "I'm happy to be with this rotation that's going to constantly keep me moving forward and positive."
Werth manages to elude tag for stolen base
WASHINGTON -- During Wednesday's 6-5 victory over the Astros, the Nationals stole four bases. One of those bases stolen was by Jayson Werth in the third inning against right-hander Scott Feldman.
Werth led off the inning with a walk and, with Ryan Zimmerman at the plate, Werth attempted to steal second base. It looked like catcher Jason Castro nailed Werth at second, but Werth eluded the tag from second baseman Jose Altuve and declared he was safe before second-base umpire Adrian Johnson officially made the call.
How did Werth manage to steal the base?
"I'm not sure," Werth said. "I think I tried that a few different times and have never been successful. It worked out today. Hopefully, I don't have to try that again."
Werth would later score on single by Ian Desmond.
Harper's upcoming return to bring lineup decisions
WASHINGTON -- Nationals left fielder Bryce Harper (torn thumb ligament) is slowly but surely approaching his return to the field.
On Tuesday, Harper swung a bat with both hands for the first time when he took soft toss in the cage. On Wednesday, Harper put his left hand into a glove and went through a full outfield workout with first-base coach Tony Tarasco, which included catching balls, agility exercises and barehand drills, manager Matt Williams said.
When Harper does come back, the Nationals will need to make room in the lineup.
Currently, left fielder Ryan Zimmerman, center fielder Denard Span and right fielder Jayson Werth make up the starting outfield. But Williams said when Harper is cleared, Zimmerman would likely move around and play three different positions: first base, left field and third base. Meanwhile, Anthony Rendon will switch between third base and second base.
Williams said his day-to-day decisions with the lineup when Harper returns will rely heavily on pitching matchups and which players need rest. Because of that, Harper could play all three outfield positions when Werth or Span need a day off.
"The good thing about our club is they have experience," Williams said. "Bryce has experience playing center field and he has experience playing right field. It's not something that's foreign to him because he's done it. Anthony can play third and second. Zimm can play left and first, we've seen that. And he certainly has hardware to prove he can play third. So it's not like it's something foreign."
Williams admitted the mixing and matching is not an easy task. But he'd rather have options than be forced to overwork players like he did in the beginning of the season when injuries plagued the Nationals.
"It's been difficult so far this season because we've had so many guys hurt," Williams said. "[Harper's return] potentially could allow us to give some guys some rest."
Werth making most of 'honor' of batting third
WASHINGTON -- Nationals outfielder Jayson Werth has been successful hitting everywhere in the lineup, but he said recently it's an honor to be hitting third, which he has done for most of this season.
Werth credits his family for feeling this way. As a kid growing up in Illinois, Werth's family -- his stepfather, Dennis Werth, grandfather and uncle -- often told Jayson that the team's best hitter bats third.
Talking to Werth, hitting third seems to be the best thing that ever happened to him. This is a guy who has won a World Series title with the Phillies in 2008 and is considered by many to be the team leader with the Nationals.
"To add that honor of hitting third bestowed upon you, I understand what a great responsibility it is because I haven't always hit third. I earned it," Werth said. "Nowadays, you see these kids coming up and given the middle of the order and they didn't have to earn anything. I was a first-round pick, but after that, I had earned it.
"I'm aware how fragile it is. I know who we have on this team, the guys that hit around me. Zim [Ryan Zimmerman] has hit third for a long time. He is a pure hitter. I know if I'm not right, go into an extended slump or don't hit like I have in the last year and a half, I'm not going to be hitting third. I won't deserve it either. I understand it and I love it. I love doing it. As long as I can do it and help the team, be that batter in the middle, I want to do it."
Werth has done the job hitting third. Entering Wednesday's action, he has reached base 11 straight games and has a .389 batting average against left-handed pitching. His 33 RBIs ranked fourth on the Nationals.
While Werth would like to drive in 100 runs for the first time in his career, his No. 1 goal is to win the World Series as a member of the Nationals.
"It's always been that way," Werth said. "Whatever my numbers look like at the end of the year, if we win the division or give ourselves a chance to win the World Series, I'll take whatever those numbers are -- 75 or 140 RBIs. It makes no difference. The one thing about me is, I'm going to score more runs than I drive in because of the type of batter than I am. I'm an on-base guy. I always have been that way. You drive in 140 runs and you don't win the division, who cares."
The Nationals optioned reliever Xavier Cedeno to Triple-A Syracuse on Wednesday to make room for left-hander Gio Gonzalez, who returned from the disabled list. Cedeno pitched one scoreless inning against the Cardinals in his most recent stint in the Major Leagues and has allowed no runs on two hits over 2 1/3 innings for the Nationals this season.
Bill Ladson is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, All Nats All the Time. He also can be found on Twitter @WashingNats. Daniel Popper is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.