Nats could use four-man rotation for season's first week-plus

JUPITER, Fla. - Friday night's rainout threw a wrench into the Nationals' pitching plans, but they hope to get everyone back on schedule today, with Tanner Roark pushed back to face the Cardinals here at Roger Dean Stadium and Joe Ross kept back in Viera to pitch in a minor league game.

It's not an ideal situation, but manager Dusty Baker said the club couldn't afford to push every member of the rotation back, lest everyone no longer be lined up properly for the season's first week.

"This is the countdown to the season," Baker said. "We planned this: This guy, this guy, boom, boom, boom, and then stay on rotation. Because you're just now getting used to the workload and the space in between starts. So you want to keep them online. You can train your body to whatever you want it to, just as long as you start from the beginning. You can vary a little later. But right now, you want to keep guys on schedule."

Ross-Throws-White-Front-Sidebar.jpgWhat that means: Roark and Ross are now lined up on the same day, with Gio Gonzalez pitching tomorrow as planned in Viera against the Braves. Yusmeiro Petit will start the other split-squad game against the Mets in Port St. Lucie, with Stephen Strasburg going Monday against the Marlins in the final Grapefruit League game ever played at Space Coast Stadium. (Wow, that's still strange to consider.)

All of this sets up the Nationals to align their rotation as they prefer entering the season. We know Max Scherzer will start the April 4 opener in Atlanta, with Gonzalez starting two nights later against the Braves and Strasburg taking the mound for the April 7 home opener against the Marlins.

The Nationals have yet to reveal how they'll line up Roark and Ross as their fourth and fifth starters, in part because they are still thinking about opening the season with only four starters on the active roster. Because of a pair of off-days in that first week, they don't actually need a No. 5 starter until April 13 against the Braves (the eighth game of the season).

"Yeah, it's something we're considering," Baker said. "But we've got to see how it works out here. Plus we've got to see who's healthy, who might be a little ailing. You've got to talk to the people involved before I tell you guys. Because it's not right to tell you guys before I tell them."

Obviously, that's not the kind of news that should be given to reporters before the pitchers involved are aware. But here's one scenario how it could play out ...

The Nationals could option Ross to Triple-A at the end of camp, with the explicit understanding he would return to start that April 13 game after making one start for Syracuse. Thus, Roark would be the No. 4 starter, and the Nationals could keep an extra reliever or bench player through the season's first seven games.

That, of course, is pure speculation at this point. Reasoned speculation, but not a scenario that explicitly has been suggested by club officials.

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