PITTSBURGH - The Nationals will hold off naming Sunday's starting pitcher until after tonight's game, a decision that could hinge on whether or not they pop any champagne corks in the clubhouse later this evening.
If the Nationals clinch the NL East title tonight - their magic number remains two entering the game - manager Dusty Baker probably will rest most of his regulars in Sunday's series finale against the Pirates. That would likely leave a rookie taking the mound: A.J. Cole, or perhaps Lucas Giolito or Reynaldo Lopez.
If the Nationals still haven't wrapped up the division crown, Baker may feel pressed to start Tanner Roark instead. The right-hander would be on normal rest, though he figured to get an extra day this time around because of Thursday's off-day.
Another factor: How deep Joe Ross pitches into tonight's game, which will impact the usage of the Nationals bullpen.
"Just debating between how tonight's game goes," Baker said. "It depends if we clinch tonight, all those kind of things. Depends who we use tonight, because it's a bullpen night. Joe probably won't go more than four or five (innings), and then we'll have to go to somebody else. And that's going to affect tomorrow."
Ross is making his second start after missing 2 1/2 months with shoulder inflammation. He threw 51 pitches over three innings Sunday in Atlanta, so the Nationals would like him to increase those totals tonight.
It's not just about the number of pitches, though. It's also about how he throws those pitches, and how many he throws per inning.
"I like to say he's on a performance count," Baker said. "And hopefully he can stay out of a big inning, where we stretch him out some. What we want him to do is, we want him to have short innings, hopefully, in theory. Then sit down, rest in between innings, and then go back out. That would be a bigger test than having a long inning. The more times he can go out there and sit down and go back out, the more it simulates what it's going to be like in the future."
The Nationals have no shortage of arms available out of the bullpen - they have 15 relievers currently listed on their lineup card - and that has at times resulted in pitchers sitting idle for long periods.
Included in that category is Yusmeiro Petit, who had appeared in only one other game this month before taking over for the bottom of the 11th Friday night. Petit wound up giving up the game-winning run, perhaps calling into question whether rust played a role in his struggles.
Baker sympathizes with the veteran swingman, but the manager also insists Petit can handle the erratic work.
"He's our extra-inning guy," Baker said. "So the situation wasn't right (to pitch in other games). That was a tough spot, but that's the spot he's going to be in. That's the spot he's used to being in. He made some quality pitches. You can't bring them back, but he's a pro. He takes his lumps when he has to take them, and then he dishes them out when he can."