Beyond the Nationals clinching the National League East, they still have one open-ended race that will affect their postseason preparation. They are tied with the Cincinnati Reds for best record in the NL, but because they took the season series from the Reds they own the tiebreaker. And so, their magic number to clinch best record stands at three with three games to play.
The Nationals’ motivation to claim the top seed lies more in their rotation than seeding. Gio Gonzalez will make his final start of the regular season Tuesday, which puts him on track to pitch again Sunday.
The Nationals will start the postseason Saturday in San Francisco if the Nationals finish behind the Reds, which would force the Nationals to either pitch Gonzalez on short rest or make Jordan Zimmermann their Game 1 starter. If they claim the top seed, the Nationals would start Sunday at the play-in wild-card game winner.
“I’d like to play Sunday,” Johnson said. “That would be Gio’s game. Whoever that is, I don’t care. I’d like to start with my 21-game winner. How all that happens, there’s a lot of things that have to get in line.”
There is also simply the competitive desire to stand atop the entire league. “It matters to me, because I want to win the most games and have the best record,” General Manager Mike Rizzo said.
The Nationals may not rest their regulars after/if they clinch the East in order to push for the top seed. The Nationals will have either two or three days off after the regular season ends, anyway, and Johnson does not see a tired team.
“I don’t feel that anybody is dragging,” Johnson said. “Shoot, in that game the other day we were blown out of, guys were fighting me to come out of the game to give at-bats to guys on the bench. Really, we got a team that’s a bunch of good athletes and young and strong.”
The Nationals have started discussing their playoff roster, and so they have to make the final few decisions. Rizzo and Johnson will collaborate to pick the 25 players eligible for the first round, with input from Nationals’ coaches.
The Nationals may make a few tweaks – likely dropping fifth starter John Lannan and adding reliever Christian Garcia – but don’t expect any surprise 25th men. It sounds like a speedster like Eury Perez, or an extra lefty like Zach Duke based on the opponent, won’t be part of the mix.
“We’re going dance with who brung us,” Rizzo said. “We’re going to go with the team that we’ve had this season out there. We feel good about, as we have throughout the season, we feel good about who we’ve got on our roster.”
The Nationals, of course, still have to tend to the matter of clinching the division. They could not close the deal Sunday with a chance to clinch with a win. But with three games remaining, Rizzo is feeling confident, not a bit antsy.
“I feel great about where we’re at,” Rizzo said. “The season, we fought and clawed and battled all year to be in the position that we’re in right now. We feel good about where we’re at. It’s in our hands, and we’re going to take care of business.”