CHICAGO — After the Nationals won Game 4 of the National League Division Series on Wednesday night, Manager Dusty Baker refused to announce his starter for Game 5 Thursday. He knew how that looked.
“I’m not trying to be coy at all, because that was the theme of the day with [Stephen Strasburg],” Baker said. “Whoever it is, I hope they pitch like Stras did today.”
Baker did admit that Tanner Roark, who was originally scheduled to pitch Game 4, and Gio Gonzalez are the primary choices. Gonzalez is on regular rest after starting Game 2 on Saturday. The lefty allowed three runs on three hits in five innings in that game, undone by homers from Willson Contreras and Anthony Rizzo. The Nationals, of course, went on to win that game with their epic eighth-inning rally.
Because Game 5 is an elimination game, the Nationals will approach it much like they did Game 4. Everyone but Strasburg will be available, including Max Scherzer, who will be on two days’ rest. Scherzer was available for an inning in Game 4, if needed, so he will likely be available for more than that in Game 5. But Baker said he “would venture Tanner or Gio — or both” will pitch Game 5.
The Nationals can use both of them Thursday, but must decide which of them fits better in a starting role. Roark has bullpen experience and is accustomed to the chaos that comes with bouncing from the bullpen to the rotation and back again. Gonzalez has made six career relief appearances, and the Nationals tend to manage his schedule more carefully than Roark’s — making sure he pitches the first game of a doubleheader so he doesn’t have to wait around, etc. Perhaps they will decide that his mind-set and experience are better suited to starting.
But one could argue for starting Roark, too. If the Nationals start Roark, the Cubs will likely load their lineup with lefties. Roark could go a few innings, perhaps until the Nationals see him teeter, then give way to Gonzalez, forcing the Cubs to play unfavorable matchups or remove some of their left-handed hitters from the game to force better ones. Strategically, this is a riskier bet, since one cannot assume a close game and must do everything to ensure it.
Then there is Scherzer, who Baker speculated Wednesday will take a long time to warm up, given his pre-start routine. If that is the case, using him will require planning and foresight. Perhaps Scherzer would be a better option in the middle of the game — or even at the beginning, though that seems unlikely. Scherzer has made two postseason relief appearances in his career, both with the Tigers, and allowed two earned runs in 3 1/3 innings of relief work. He also relieved in the 2016 All-Star Game, and knowing he would throw just one inning, Scherzer nearly touched 100 with his fastball and looked even more powerful than normal. Perhaps he would be a good one-inning option late, particularly because normal eighth-inning man Ryan Madson required 27 pitches to throw a scoreless eighth in Game 4.
Still, Madson and Sean Doolittle were the only relievers the Nationals needed to send the series back to D.C. Matt Albers is likely available for more than one inning. Brandon Kintzler, Oliver Perez and the rest of the bullpen should also be at full strength as needed despite warming up in Wednesday’s win. The Nationals will have plenty of options from which to choose in relieving their starter. They must now decide who that starter will be.
More on the Nationals:
D.C. Sports Bog: Best and worst moments from Game 4 of the NLDS