By SANTOSH VENKATARAMAN
(AP) -- The Washington Nationals are bringing their impressive ERA and penchant for winning close games to the West Coast.
They'll send Gio Gonzalez to the mound in the opener of a three-game set against the San Diego Padres on Tuesday night.
Washington (12-4) will play its first six games against NL West opponents on this trip, moving on to face the Dodgers on Friday. The Nationals should be well rested following two days off after Sunday's finale of an 11-game homestand was rained out against Miami.
With an ERA of 2.34 and a 6-2 mark in one-run games, the Nationals believe they can contend for the East crown.
"It really validates we are a pretty good team," said first baseman Adam LaRoche, who has a club-high 13 RBIs. "Not just all the talk, not just guys in spring training thinking we're a pretty good team. Now it's starting to be like reality. This team is legit. It rubs off on everybody."
The homestand featured five one-run victories, with three going extra innings for one of baseball's biggest surprises in the early going.
"These two weeks, we had a lot of close games," manager Davey Johnson said. "Extra innings, a bunch of one-run games. When the fire is hot, it makes the metal harder."
Gonzalez (1-0, 2.04 ERA), one of the club's major offseason acquisitions, enters with a 14-inning scoreless streak. He yielded two hits and struck out eight over seven last Tuesday to earn his first victory with the Nationals, 1-0 over Houston.
He's never faced San Diego (5-12), which is 1-6 when opponents use left-handed starters. Jason Bartlett (4 for 6 with three walks) and Orlando Hudson (0 for 2) are the only healthy Padres who have faced him.
San Diego's .214 average is the NL's second-worst mark. The Padres, however, took advantage of another offensively-challenged team to split four games at home with Philadelphia coming into this series.
After getting outscored 6-1 in losing the first two games, San Diego outscored Philadelphia 11-2 to take the last two. Nick Hundley continued to break out of an early slump with a homer and four RBIs in a 6-1 victory Sunday.
Hundley has gone 10 for 26 over his last seven games after starting 0 for 21.
"I don't think my swing ever left, I think my approach and my mental state was terrible early on," he said. "I think my swing was OK, I just had to keep battling."
If Hundley is behind the plate Tuesday, it will mark the second straight time that he'll catch Clayton Richard (1-1, 5.89) after John Baker caught Richard's first two starts.
Richard has yielded 12 earned runs over his last two outings after giving up none over seven innings of his season debut April 8. He allowed eight runs in 5 1-3 innings of an 8-4 defeat at Colorado on Wednesday.
The left-hander has gone 1-2 with a 3.48 ERA in five career starts against Washington.
The Nationals won the 2011 season series 4-3.
Updated April 23, 2012