The other day, the new playoff format came up in a conversation between Manager Davey Johnson and General Manager Mike Rizzo. Before they delved too deeply into the issue, Johnson told Rizzo, “Don’t tell me what it is, because I don’t even want to know.”
With the Nationals close to clinching the National League East and a half-game up on the Reds for the top seed in the NL playoffs, Johnson has a problem. He would like to start planning for the postseason – his playoff rotation, how much to rest starters, etc. But he cannot plan when the road ahead still remains muddled, and may remain muddled until 48 hours before the Nationals’ first playoff game.
“There are so many variables in there that there’s really no solution to the equation, until you see where you finish up,” Johnson said. “There’s multiple things that could happen – the wild card, if there’s a tie, all kinds of stuff. We’ve got 10 games left. I know if we win six out of 10, we win the division, and we’ve got a good chance of probably having the best record.”
If the Nationals hold on the to the league’s best record, it may create more problems than advantages. Because the Nationals would not know their opponent until the play-in game, Johnson would not know how he wants to align his rotation down the stretch to make each pitcher has the right amount of rest for their Division Series start.
Right now, the Braves and Cardinals would square off in the wild-card game. The Braves have a lineup susceptible to left-handed starters, while the Cardinals are right-handed heavy. Rather than prepare for either, the team with the best record would have to wait for the results and then scramble.
“I don’t like to criticize Major League Baseball, but from an operational standpoint, to line up your pitching, it’s very difficult,” Johnson said. “It’s great for the fans, but boy, for a manager, it’s tough.
“It’s actually easier for the clubs fighting for the wild card because they’ll know who they have to beat to move ahead. And then if they get in, they’ll know who they’re going to play. I don’t. I shouldn’t be handicapped that way. To me that’s putting a handicap.”
This is not exactly big breaking news, but Johnson acknowledged Gio Gonzalez, his 20-win Cy Young candidate, will likely start Game 1 of the Nationals’ playoff series. Jordan Zimmermann seems to be a solid No. 2. But whether lefty Ross Detwiler or right-hander Edwin Jackson serves as the third starter in a five-game division series may depend on the opponent.
The top seed would ensure home field advantage in the event they reach the NLCS. They would also get to play a team, even if on short notice, that exhausted a top starter in the play-in game. Still, “I don’t even know the advantage is of the best record,” Johnson said.
Johnson’s focus remained on the Nationals winning their daily game and clinching the NL East. With a victory today, Washington would take a five-game lead over Atlanta with nine to play.
The Nationals could clinch at the start of, or before, their series with the Cardinals this upcoming weekend. The Cardinals may be fending off pursuers for the second wild-card spot. Johnson defiantly said he would not worry about how resting his starters would impact the race.
“I really don’t give a rat’s [behind] what somebody thinks about my club and who I put on the field,” Johnson said. “I’m resting my regulars. End of conversation. I have a lot of confidence in the other guys, too, in that they’re fully capable, as they’ve shown all year long when they’ve had the opportunity to play. My responsibility is to get my club ready for the next day. But it’s happened in the past. I’ve had criticism. And I’ve said, ‘Fine.’ I’m not worried.
“I’ve still got a big responsibility to making sure that my guys are ready for postseason. And it has nothing to do with what the rest of the league is doing.”