The Nationals are playing their eighth season in Washington, but this is the first summer in which they’ve been true players in baseball.

True, the Nats led the National League East as late as July 20 during their Washington debut in 2005, but by today’s date that season, they were already five and a half games games out en route to finishing nine games back at 81-81.

The Nats’ best full season since was last year when they won 14 of their last 18 games to finish at 80-81 (one game was postponed and not made up since it didn’t affect the postseason).

But this year’s Nats didn’t fold in late July or early August nor will they have to close with a rush to try to wind up at .500. Washington’s 71-44 record is the best in the majors despite yesterday’s loss at Arizona that ended its eight-game winning streak.

A major reason why the Nats are a whopping 15 games ahead of last year’s pace takes the mound tonight in San Francisco. That’s Gio Gonzalez, who makes his return to the Bay Area while trying to match Livan Hernandez’s Nats record of 15 victories in a season.

Gonzalez was an All-Star last season for Oakland for whom he won a career-high 16 games. Washington general manager Mike Rizzo daringly dealt four top prospects to the Athletics for the 26-year-old left hander last Dec. 23, a move that looks brilliant considering Gonzalez’s 14-6 record, 3.32 earned run average, second straight All-Star selection, and an affordable contract that runs through 2016.

The Hialeah, Fla. native hasn’t been nearly as effective since his awesome first 10 starts during which he went 7-1 with a surreal 2.01 ERA. In fact, Gonzalez has been lousy more often than he has been good since May turned into June. Over his past 13 starts, Gonzalez is 7-5 with a 4.56 ERA. And yet, he has delivered a couple of gems during his downturn, limiting Colorado to a run and three hits in six innings on July 7 and rebounding from a season-worst performance against the visiting New York Mets on July 19 to beat them at Citi Field five days later while allowing just two hits and an unearned run over seven innings.

At six feet and 200 pounds, Gonzalez isn’t a physical specimen like fellow top of the rotation stars Stephen Strasburg and Jordan Zimmermann. In fact, the only shorter Nats are catcher Jesus Flores and reserve infielder Cesar Itzuris. But Gonzalez still throws about as hard as any lefty in the majors while also recording a slew of his 154 strikeouts (compared to just 54 walks) with a dazzling curveball.

And while Hernandez was a wily battler who was a popular and respected teammate during his three and a half seasons in Washington over two tours of duty, the ever-smiling Gonzalez has brought a looseness to a Nats clubhouse that had been characterized by the quiet professionalism of third baseman Ryan Zimmerman and Strasburg’s intense focus.

Gonzalez’s A’s never topped .500 or came within eight games of a division title. With just 47 games to go this year, the Nats lead the Atlanta Braves by four and a half games in the NL East and are six and a half games in front of the Pittsburgh Pirates, who hold the league’s last playoff spot.

No wonder that Gonzalez is still having fun despite his slide since May. And it’s no wonder that Rizzo is in line for Executive of the Year honors after making moves like the one for Gonzalez.

David Elfin began writing about sports when he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. He is Washington’s representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and the author of seven books, most recently, “Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History.” A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan the last two Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since last March. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidElfin


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