The Nationals face dilemmas in lining up Gio Gonzalez, postseason rotation

Gio Gonzalez
(Patrick McDermott/Getty Images)

The Nationals’ uncertain playoff schedule presents any number of dilemmas for Manager Davey Johnson, and the handling of No. 1 starter Gio Gonzalez may be the most difficult.

Gonzalez’s last start came Thursday in Philadelphia, which would set him up to pitch on regular rest Tuesday, in Washington’s penultimate game of the season. It could be perfect timing, or it could be an accident waiting to happen, and the Nationals only have so much control over it.

“It’s very confusing to be able to set up not knowing where you’re going,” Johnson said. “That’s that format.”

Johnson wants to make Gonzalez the Nationals’ Game 1 pitcher in the postseason. Right now, Game 1 could come on one of two days and against one of three opponents.

The Nationals currently are tied with the Cincinnati Reds for the best record in the National League. They hold the tie-breaker by virtue of winning the season series, 5-2, against the Reds. It is still mathematically possible the Nationals will finish with the third seed, or even in the wild-card game, but the overwhelming likelihood is they’ll win the NL East and be either first or second seed.

If the Nationals claim the best record in the National League, they would begin the playoffs against the wild-card game winner on Oct. 7. In that scenario, Gonzalez would have regular rest and be right on schedule to start Game 1 of the NLDS.

If the Nationals finish behind the Reds and get the second seed, the Nationals will face a pick. They would begin the playoffs against the Giants on Oct. 6. In that scenario, assuming he makes his start Tuesday, Gonzalez would have only three days of rest.

The problem is, the Nationals will not probably not know on Tuesday, Gonzalez’s day to pitch, which day they’ll start the playoffs. Do they pitch him Tuesday and hope for the best? Skip him altogether? Make him the No. 2 starter in the event they get the second seed? Give him a shortened start?

Probably the latter option. Even if they choose to skip him, Gonzalez would be forced to go at least eight days between starts. Johnson said Gonzalez will make his start Tuesday, but he could pitch only three or four innings. Gonzalez has gone about his usual, between-start routine.

“I’m just preparing myself as it goes along,” Gonzalez said. “If it comes down to it and they give me the ball, I’ll be ready. It’s one of those adjustments you have to make. I’ve never been in this situation, so I don’t know.”

Behind Gonzalez, Johnson said he would align his rotation based on matchups. Today, Johnson researched how opponents have fared against certain pitchers. The Giants are 39-17 against left-handed starters and the Cardinals are 30-17, while the Braves are 30-30 against southpaws and 61-36 against right-handed starters.

The Nationals, really, could have solved some of their problems with a dominant finish. They have gone 15-11 in September and 6-8 in their last 14 games. They have forced themselves to stay on their regular rotation in order to ensure the division, and they cannot lineup Gonzalez as if they will be the first overall seed with confidence.

Adam Kilgore covers national sports for the Washington Post. Previously he served as the Post's Washington Nationals beat writer from 2010 to 2014.

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James Wagner · September 29, 2012

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