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."

Nats look to Young to fill in during Classic

KISSIMMEE, Fla. -- With one starter already gone and another leaving soon for the World Baseball Classic, the Nationals are looking at a handful of candidates to fill rotation spots in the coming weeks.

Chris Young, signed to a Minor League deal, will pitch in Ross Detwiler's place on Saturday against the Marlins. He threw 41 pitches in two innings of a Minor League intrasquad game on Tuesday.

Detwiler, in Arizona with Team USA, would be joined in the second round by fellow lefty Gio Gonzalez, who made his final start with the Nationals on Thursday before potentially joining the Americans in Miami. Gonzalez is scheduled to pitch the opener of that round, on March 12 at Marlins Park, should Team USA advance.

That opens the door for non-roster invitee Ross Ohlendorf and right-hander Nathan Karns, who is on the 40-man roster. Manager Davey Johnson said Karns' last outing was cut to one inning because of tightness in his left leg, but it shouldn't hinder his progress much. Karns is scheduled to throw next on Friday.

Ohlendorf, who made 50 starts from 2009-10 with the Pirates, has a 5.63 ERA (five earned runs in eight innings) through three games this spring.

He gave up two runs on three hits and one walk in three innings of work on Thursday against the Astros.

"He was a little rusty today," Johnson said. "He wasn't as sharp as he was the last time out. He was a little bit all over the place. He threw the ball all right, but typical Spring Training game."

Karns, the Nationals' No. 6 prospect according to MLB.com 2013 Prospect Watch, has tossed three scoreless innings this spring. He was 11-4 with a 2.17 ERA in 24 games (18 starts) between Low-A Hagerstown and High-A Potomac last season.

Worth noting

• Nationals outfielder Roger Bernadina's Dutch team will take on Cuba in its first game of the second round of the World Baseball Classic at 10 p.m. EDT on Thursday from Tokyo.

Bernadina went 2-for-13 with a double, a run and three RBIs in the first round of the tournament, playing center field and batting third. Nationals Minor Leaguer Randolph Oduber went 0-for-3 with one game of action in the first round.

Nationals Minor Leaguer and right-hander Matthew Torra is playing for Team Italy, which opens play on Thursday afternoon against Mexico.

• Davey Johnson, who served as the bench coach for Team USA in the 2006 World Baseball Classic, and managed the team in the 2009 tournament, had this to say about the 2013 edition: "I think the way they've scheduled it this year, it's about 10 times better than it was the last time we played. I remember, we ended up playing eight games in 23 days. The schedule is such that they're starting on the eighth, they're gonna finish up on the 20th. That's great. That makes it better for the players because they're playing, they're not having 4-5 days off. I think they've really improved the format. ... I think what they've done this year, it's gonna keep it a lot stronger, more guys that want to play, and it's got a good future now."

• In the fifth inning, Astros first baseman Brandon Laird singled to left field, rounded first and was nearly nabbed by a Bryce Harper throw behind him back to first base. The play caught first baseman Tyler Moore by surprise, but perhaps not Johnson.

"I was waiting on one," the skipper said, adding that Tony Tarasco had a chat with Harper about it afterward. "You can't keep him bottled up."

• Micah Owings, trying to make the transition from pitcher to position player this spring with the Nats, made his first appearance in left field on Thursday and had a line drive hit to him immediately.

"That was fun," Owings said. "Got my heart pumping a little bit, but that was fun."

A sore left wrist has slowed Owings' spring, but Johnson said he's making every effort to get him some reps.

"I'm just getting him out there, I'm getting him on the field," Johnson said. "I don't have a whole lot of chances to get him playing time. He made the only ball hit to him, so that was good. Right out of the shoot, as soon as he gets out there, they hit one to him. But I'm going to give him some at-bats here and there."