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. There are differences: Game 4 was on the road; Taylor’s home run didn’t win the game though it provided welcomed breathing room; and this year, the Cy Young favorite is available out of the Nationals bullpen. Still, weird.
Anyway, 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.
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 had 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.
By going with Gonzalez, the Nationals could force Cubs Manager Joe Maddon to make difficult decisions. If Maddon opts for a righty-heavy starting lineup, what happens if Washington brings in Roark or Scherzer, both right-handers, in, say, the fourth or fifth inning? Does Maddon make wholesale changes and deplete his bench to have 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. The Nationals, on paper, have the bullpen advantage in Game 5. Whether is matters, time will tell.