Nats cautious with Gio before he leaves for Classic

KISSIMMEE, Fla. -- Rather than ramp him up in his final start before departing for the World Baseball Classic, the Nationals played it safe with left-hander Gio Gonzalez by limiting his pitch count before the tournament.

Gonzalez's last start with the Nationals for likely at least a week -- on Thursday against the Astros in Kissimmee -- was held to 42 pitches (27 strikes) so as to avoid any conflict with his starts for Team USA.

"I felt good," Gonzalez said. "Three innings, still working on stuff. I felt I was building more strength as the innings went along, finally picking up my target. Finished off in the bullpen, trying to still get that groove again. But other than that, I felt good."

The rules for the tournament indicate that if a pitcher on a World Baseball Classic roster throws more than 50 pitches in any kind of outing, he's not able to pitch in the tournament for a minimum of four days.

Manager Davey Johnson said the Nationals reached out to the Team USA brass and MLB offices to get clarification on the rule, but they wanted to play it safe to keep Gonzalez eligible, although he won't pitch for the American team unless it makes it to the second round of play. He'd start the first game of that round, March 12, at Marlins Park in Miami.

Gonzalez, who scattered three hits and one walk over three innings while striking out three, said he threw an additional 23 pitches in the bullpen after he was taken out of the game. He was able to throw more off-speed pitches on Thursday after the conditions in Jupiter limited him mostly to his fastball the last time out.

"This time I was throwing the curveball, throwing the changeup, which was landing for strikes, which is what I wanted," Gonzalez said. "Try to get all three pitches in effect, especially coming up now for the Classic."

Joey Nowak is a reporter for Follow him on Twitter at @joeynowak. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.