Left-hander Gio Gonzalez gets the nod for the Nationals’ most important game in 2017 and, really, in their franchise history to date. Gonzalez will be on the hill tonight for Game 5 of the National League Division Series against the Cubs.
Manager Dusty Baker could have easily given the start to right-hander Tanner Roark, who until late Wednesday morning appeared to be the planned Game 4 starter in Chicago. Right-hander Stephen Strasburg felt good enough to go after battling sickness for a few days and got the call. Roark was not put in the game. Baker went with Gonzalez for tonight’s final game of the series.
“Well, we weighed it out, right-left, and who’s been, the best behind the other two guys, but everybody is on call,” Baker said. “And you know, Gio had gone Game 5 a couple years ago, three years ago, and didn’t do too well, so I’m sure redemption is on his mind, as well. All those factors into went into choosing today’s starter.”
There was some good and bad for Gonzalez in that Game 5 start of the NLDS in 2012. Gonzalez was given a 6-0 lead, allowed three runs and lasted only five innings. The Cardinals came back to win 9-7 to advance to the National League Championship Series.
Gonzalez would love to notch his first postseason victory tonight for the Nats, who are 0-2 when he starts an elimination game.
Just like in that game in 2012, Gonzalez went five innings and allowed three runs for a no decision Saturday night in Game 2 of this NLDS.
Gonzalez allowed a pair of home runs Saturday: Willson Contreras’ solo shot in the second Anthony Rizzo’s a two-run homer in the fourth.
One player that Gonzalez and catcher Matt Wieters need to be careful with is Rizzo. He has a Cubs franchise record 17 RBIs in their postseason history. The slugger has come through with five RBIs in this series.
But Wieters looks for Gonzalez to concentrate on what he can do well and not get caught up in the gravity of the moment or looking to avoid a particular hitter.
“So going out and pitching his game,” Wieters said when asked what he expects from Gonzalez. “I think when he can move his fastball around in and out, it’s huge for him. You know, off-speed any time, 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.”
As far as how long the starter will go in this one, this game is different because it’s a winner-take-all Game 5. That means the Nationals will have starters Max Scherzer and Roark at the ready if Gonzalez gets into any kind of trouble, regardless of the inning.
But what if tonight does not go well for Gonzalez? You can bet that Baker will have no qualms about getting Scherzer and/or Roark in the game.
Baker said that Scherzer could go “possibly two” innings. He also said that Roark is “probably the early option” in this game.
“But again, like I said, I hope we don’t need (Scherzer),” the manager said.
Baker said Scherzer was getting into the proper mindset for Game 5, acting like the bullpen was his full-time gig.
“You know, Max had the backpack on like the bullpen (rookie) guys do,” Baker smiled. “Probably filled with candy and bubblegum and all kinds of - I don’t know what they have in there. Looks kind of weird, Max getting ready to go to school again.”
Wieters usually sits down before games with pitching coach Mike Maddux and Gonzalez for a normal start. But he also has strategized with other pitchers for tonight’s elimination game. Wieters reasoned that playoff series are not normal by-the-book type of situations, so he has altered his normal pregame planning.
“Yeah, I’ve done that, really, from the beginning of the series,” Wieters said. “Because once you get in a playoff series, you never know what situation a guy might be in against what kind of hitter. So, you kind of prepare and the best kind of info is when you have actual at-bats where guys have faced guys.
“I’ve tried to watch as many at-bats as possible of our guys against their guys. And from there, you kind of go with the report and what you see back behind the plate.”
So much has been made this season about how Gonzalez is better with Wieters as his catcher. What is also interesting is Wieters’ take on catching Gonzalez.
“He’s a lefty with three pitches who has three really good pitches, and is confident throwing any time, any place,” Wieters said. “So that makes it easy for a catcher to be able to go through and call a game. And he’s never been a guy - he doesn’t really question pitch selection. He knows if he makes a pitch in the right spot that he wants to make it, he’s going to have success more times than not.”