Johnson on rotation alignment, battle with Cards and Zimmerman’s defense

ST. LOUIS - Tanner Roark gets the start tonight for the Nationals in the opener of their three-game set with the Cardinals, but this will probably be the last time we’ll see the rookie right-hander start a game this season.

Manager Davey Johnson has laid out his rotation for the remainder of the season, and he’ll have Roark move back to the bullpen following tonight’s game.

Gio Gonzalez will start tomorrow night, followed by Jordan Zimmermann in the series finale Wednesday afternoon. Then Johnson has chosen to go with Stephen Strasburg, Dan Haren and Gonzalez as his starters for the final series of the regular season out in Phoenix against the Diamondbacks.

Johnson’s decision has something to do with aligning his starters on normal rest (or close to it, in Haren’s case), but he also wants to put his most experienced starters on the mound down the stretch just in case the Nats still find themselves in the mix for a playoff spot.

“Gio’s pitching tomorrow and he’d have normal rest for Sunday,” Johnson said. “I figure put our best foot forward. And Roark would be available out of the ‘pen, whereas Gio wouldn’t. I still figure on putting my best foot forward either way.”

The guys playing behind Roark in the outfield tonight could have to navigate some interesting terrain. As I mentioned earlier, the outfield here at Busch Stadium is pretty chewed up thanks to a college football game that was played here on Saturday, and the fresh sod that the grounds crew has laid down doesn’t look to be too smooth and connected.

Talking to those who have been out on the outfield grass, they say there is sand that’s been placed in between the layers of sod to fill in the cracks, and that the turf doesn’t have too much give to it yet. Outfielders will have to make sure that they stay down on balls that skip across the turf tonight, and we could see some interesting hops. For what it’s worth, neither team took batting practice or shagged flies as a group today.

Johnson was asked if he’s concerned about the conditions in the outfield during this series.

“I’m not, my outfielders probably are,” Johnson said. “I grew up in old Memorial Stadium where the old Baltimore Colts chewed it up this time of year. And they also had concerts out there, too. So no telling what you might find out there when you’re running around. But I’m sure it’s gonna be all right.”

Johnson admitted that being back in Busch Stadium this time of year brought back memories of the National League Division Series last year, when the Nats fell to the Cardinals in dramatic fashion. They took the series opener here in St. Louis thanks largely to Tyler Moore’s pinch-hit two-run single, but then lost three of the next four games.

If you wonder whether the Nats will remember that series as they prepare for this three-game set, the answer is that they do. And they’d love nothing more than to deliver a major blow to the Cardinals’ hopes of locking up the NL Central title over these next three games.

“They knocked us out of the thing and they also swept us at home (this season),” Johnson said. “They think they’re better than we are. It’s time we stand up and prove that we can beat ‘em. And in some meaningful games. These are meaningful games. Them and us.”

Johnson was asked if he feels that one team can just seem to have another team’s number, for whatever reason.

“Yeah, you can have your way with ‘em, but it’s usually because you’ve got better players and play better,” Johnson said. “But talent-wise, I think we match up good. It’s just how we perform. We didn’t close out the deal when we had them in the playoffs. And we didn’t play good when they came in our place this year. So it’s time to wake up.”

Over the last few months, we’ve seen Ryan Zimmerman’s throwing slowly start to improve, as his arm strength has returned after surgery on his right shoulder this offseason. Last night, Zimmerman made perhaps his best defensive play of the season, diving towards the third base line to snag a hot-shot grounder off the bat of Giancarlo Stanton and then delivering a strong, on-target, over-the-top throw to first to get Stanton by half a step.

“Unbelievable,” Johnson said. “I said I wasn’t worried about (Zimmerman’s arm strength) six weeks ago. That was unbelievable on the catch and he had a heck of a lot on it, too. It was a seed. I think we can put that issue to bed.”

Sure didn’t look like the type of play made by a guy who needs to be moved to first base soon.

“No, didn’t look like it to me, either,” Johnson said with a smile. “But that’s a whole ‘nother story.”

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