With their season and hopes of advancing beyond the NLDS on the line, the Nationals have named Gio Gonzalez their starter for Thursday night’s Game 5 against the Cubs at Nationals Park. Right-hander Kyle Hendricks will start for Chicago. He held Washington to two hits over seven scoreless innings in Game 1.
The decision to start Gonzalez continues a familiar script for Washington: In 2012, the Nationals won Game 4 against the Cardinals, the National League Central and defending World Series champions, behind a huge home run (Jayson Werth’s walk-off solo homer) to force a Game 5. Gonzalez started Game 5 and the Nationals lost, despite jumping out to a 6-0 lead.
Five years later, the Nationals won Game 4 against the Cubs, the N.L. Central and defending World Series champions, with help from a huge home run (Michael A. Taylor’s grand slam) to force a Game 5.
“As you know, Gio had gone Game 5 a couple years ago, a few years ago, and didn’t do too well,” Nationals Manager Dusty Baker said. “So I’m sure redemption is on his mind, as well. All those factors went into choosing today’s starter.”
There are differences this season: Game 4 was on the road; Taylor’s home run didn’t win the game though it provided welcomed breathing room; and the Cy Young favorite is available out of the Nationals bullpen. Still, weird.
Gonzalez allowed three runs over five innings in the Nationals’ Game 2 win in Washington on Saturday. During the regular season, he held Chicago to one run across six innings in a loss June 26.
“I think when he can move his fastball around in and out, it’s huge for him,” Nationals catcher Matt Wieters said. “You know, off-speed, anytime, has really been Gio’s strength this year. So to be able to get ahead with it and put guys away with it helps him. But his fastball command is always going to be huge for him.”
The Nationals chose between Gonzalez and Tanner Roark, who ceded his Game 4 start to Stephen Strasburg on Wednesday. While Gonzalez hasn’t pitched out of the bullpen since 2009, Roark has considerable experience in relief. The right-hander has 42 career relief appearances, including two in the 2014 postseason, when he allowed a run on three hits in 2 2/3 innings against the Giants. Roark’s last outing was out of the bullpen in Washington’s regular season finale Oct. 1. He yielded two runs in an inning against the Pirates. He also pitched out of the bullpen in Washington’s final game before the all-star break.
By going with Gonzalez, the Nationals could force Cubs Manager Joe Maddon to make difficult decisions. What happens if Washington brings in Roark or Scherzer, both right-handers, in, say, the fourth or fifth inning? Does Maddon make deplete his bench to field more left-handed hitters? Does he wait until the later innings?
The Cubs have a quality starter from the other side, lefty Jose Quintana, to piggyback off Hendricks, but used Jon Lester out of the bullpen in Game 4. Baker said Scherzer could be available for two innings, though he’d prefer not to use him since he’s likely the Nationals’ NLCS Game 1 starter Saturday against the Dodgers should they advance. Washington, on paper, has the bullpen advantage in Game 5. Whether it matters and the Nationals finally advance, time will tell.
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