ST. LOUIS — The precarious nature with which the playoffs are set up this season bothers Nationals manager Davey Johnson. He doesn’t know how he’ll be setting up his pitching with so many races coming down to the end, including his own quest for the division title, and if the Nationals were to be the No. 1 overall seed in the National League, they won’t know their division series opponent until two nights before it’s set to begin.
All of that makes it next to impossible for Johnson to attempt to line up his starters to pitch on as-regular-as-possible rest.
“It’s very confusing to be able to set up not knowing where you’re going,” Johnson said Saturday afternoon, his team possibly clinching the NL East title that night. “That’s a bad format.”
In an ideal world, Johnson said he would set up Gio Gonzalez to start Game 1 of a presumed division series.
Right now, Gonzalez is scheduled to make his next start on Tuesday, which would mean he’d be on regular rest to open the division series on Sunday. But say the Nationals are not the No. 1 seed, say they finish behind the Cincinnati Reds, who are currently tied with them for the best record.
Then Gonzalez, if he made his start on Tuesday, would have to pitch on Saturday on short, three-days rest.
So what is Johnson to do?
Most likely, Gonzalez will throw on his regular turn on Tuesday in the Nationals’ penultimate regular season game and, as long as the Nationals have clinched the division by then, only throw a few innings. That way coming back on a day less rest might not be such a big deal.
“If we knew something by the second, he could have a short outing and then come back three days rest,” Johnson said. “I don’t like to do that. But that’s a possibility.”
Gonzalez is only the tip of the iceberg, as the Nationals will have to juggle all of their starters to try and get them on relatively regular rest in the playoffs. How they lineup the rest of the rotation will depend greatly on the opponent, though the Nationals will attempt ensure that no pitcher goes a ridiculously long period of time without pitching in a game before the playoffs.
Recently Johnson ran the numbers. The Cardinals are 30-17 against left-handed pitchers, the Braves 30-30 and the Giants are 39-17, so Johnson would prefer to throw right-handers against either the Cardinals or the Giants, but left-handers against the Braves — who are 61-36 against right-handers.
“If it’s San Francisco or (St. Louis), I’ll probably have my right-handers more at the top,” Johnson said of Jordan Zimmermann and Edwin Jackson. “And if it’s the other way, I’ll probably have my left-handers (Gonzalez and Ross Detwiler) more at the top.
“But again, it’s hard to set it up because if we have to go all the way to the (Oct. 3), then I won’t have that luxury. Depending on what day, it’ll be the guy that it’s his day.”
The Nationals may have eased things for themselves a bit if they’d clinched the division earlier but a 15-11 September and 6-8 record in their last 14 games has left them until the season’s final five games to wrap things up. Still, the uncertainty of the top seeds and who will win the one-game wild card playoff wouldn’t have made it all that much easier.