By NICOLINO DIBENEDETTO
(AP) -- A team meeting may have sparked the Washington Nationals for one night, but Gio Gonzalez and the rest of the staff are big reasons they're atop the NL East as one of baseball's early surprises.
Gonzalez looks to continue his dazzling run as the Nationals open a three-game series against the Cincinnati Reds on Friday night.
Washington (19-12) has the best staff in baseball with a 2.64 ERA, and the rotation has been even better with a 2.24 ERA while holding opponents to .199 at the plate.
That outstanding pitching was on display Thursday, when Stephen Strasburg allowed one earned run and struck out 13 in six innings of a 4-2 win over Pittsburgh. That performance helped end a three-game slide after manager Davey Johnson held a team meeting to discuss the struggles.
"That's a good night to have a team meeting, isn't it?" Johnson said.
Giving the ball to Gonzalez (3-1, 1.72) may be just what the Nationals need to keep rolling.
The left-hander has allowed two or fewer runs in each of his last five starts - starting with a seven-inning scoreless outing with seven strikeouts versus Cincinnati on April 12 in a 3-2, 10-inning home win - and was impressive again Saturday, yielding one run and four hits with seven strikeouts in a 7-1 win over Philadelphia. He even helped himself with just his second career hit - a double - before scoring on Jayson Werth's homer.
"Outstanding effort against a good-hitting club," Johnson said. "He made it look easy."
Despite his impressive start to 2012, Gonzalez hasn't been as consistent on the road, going 1-1 with a 3.45 ERA in three starts.
He'll now make his first start at Great American Ball Park since he spent his previous four seasons with Oakland.
Adam LaRoche was 6 for 17 with six RBIs in last month's series with the Reds, and he enters this one hitting .400 with four homers while driving in eight runs in 10 contests.
Cincinnati is returning home for a series before opening a seven-game road trip at Atlanta on Monday. The club has won five of seven after a 2-1 victory at Milwaukee on Wednesday.
Leake (0-4, 5.97) gets the ball in an effort to keep the Reds' momentum going, but he's also getting a sixth crack at his first win of 2012.
The right-hander's season-opening losing streak continued Saturday, as he allowed three runs and two homers with four walks in a seven innings of a 3-2 loss at Pittsburgh. However, he felt there were signs of improvement during his longest outing of 2012.
"It's definitely a step in the right direction," said Leake, whose ERA dropped more than one-half run. "Even though I had four walks, I was still happy with the way I threw the ball. I had a couple more mistakes than what showed, but they made me pay for two of them."
Leake is 3-1 with a 3.86 ERA in five starts against the Nationals, allowing five runs with three walks in 6 1-3 innings of an 8-5 win in 11 on April 15.
He's been much better in winning two home meetings, compiling a 2.45 ERA.
Joey Votto is hitting .333 with five doubles and three RBIs in seven games.
Updated May 10, 2012