ATLANTA - The Nationals knew they wouldn't need a fifth starter until the season's second week. Few figured, though, that the guy who would end up getting bumped to that delayed start would be Gio Gonzalez. Or that the guy taking the mound for Thursday's home opener would be Tanner Roark.
Gonzalez, not Joe Ross or Roark, will open the season in the bullpen and not make his first start of 2016 until next Monday against the Braves in Washington. That decision was announced by manager Dusty Baker this afternoon, a couple of hours before his team took the field for opening day.
The rationale: The Nationals wanted Gonzalez to slot in between Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg. But with two days off this week, they didn't think they could keep that alignment intact deeper into April without making pitchers take too many days off between starts.
"It's just with the off days, we kind of wanted Scherzer to (precede) Gio," Baker said. "That's the way we think, in case something happens, we can save our bullpen. We just think that kind of lines us up the best. (Pitching coach Mike Maddux) and I talked about it, big time, discussed it and rehashed it, and this is what we came up with."
There's nothing physically wrong with Gonzalez, Baker said, and he will be available out of the bullpen for this opening series at Turner Field. But the veteran left-hander won't make his first start of the season until Game No. 7, after Scherzer has already taken the mound twice.
Baker hasn't been afraid to explain part of his reasoning is a lack of confidence in Gonzalez to go deep in games with as much consistency as the two right-handers who will be sandwiched around him: Scherzer and Strasburg.
"You've got innings guys followed by some guys that might throw less innings than others, which saves your bullpen," Baker said. "It is a unit down there. We're just trying to do the best we can to keep the unit intact."
Roark, meanwhile, will start Thursday's home opener against the Marlins. It's a nice honor for Roark, who last year was surprised to be bumped to the bullpen despite his breakthrough performance in 2014 as a starter.
"He wants it," Baker said of Roark, who gave up only four runs in 18 innings this spring. "He told me when I talked to him in spring training: He wants to start. I told him: 'Hey, man, if that's what you want, then that's what you go for. And if you want to tell the world, go ahead. It's your mouth.' And he told the world he wants to start. And here it is. Go for it. I like that attitude."
Here's how the rotation will line up over the next week-plus...
Today at Braves: Scherzer
Wednesday at Braves: Strasburg
Thursday vs. Marlins: Roark
Saturday vs. Marlins: Ross
Sunday vs. Marlins: Scherzer
Monday vs. Braves: Gonzalez
Tuesday vs. Braves: Strasburg