Nationals manager Davey Johnson is not going to let slip his postseason roster a moment sooner than necessary.
Even after his team clinched the National League East title this week, reporters' questions on the topic were deflected with a deft hand. With two days off to deliberate -- the St. Louis Cardinals and Atlanta Braves play in the NL wild-card game on Friday afternoon, with the winner facing Washington -- the choices are stark for the NL Division Series, which starts Sunday. Does Johnson want to take an eight-man bullpen into the playoffs, or would he rather have six men on his bench? Teams must name their roster before each postseason series.
"You're asking questions that don't need to be answered yet. We don't even know who we're playing," Johnson said before Wednesday's regular-season finale. "And it could be two series later. So I'll address that when it's time to address it."
It helps that teams can carry just four starting pitchers rather than the five-man rotations from the regular season. But while the four choices seem obvious -- Gio Gonzalez, Jordan Zimmermann, Ross Detwiler, Edwin Jackson -- that isn't necessarily so. The Braves struggle against left-handed pitching with a .689 team OPS against southpaws. That ranked 23rd among the 30 big league clubs. So if Johnson wanted, he could add in lefty John Lannan and sit Jackson.
But that's not an easy decision. Lannan, after all, was sent to Triple-A for most of the season because team officials thought Detwiler and Jackson were better pitchers. He did allow just two earned runs in seven innings in a July 21 win over Atlanta. But Jackson pitched seven innings of one-run ball against them the next day. Do you go with the better pitcher or the better matchup?
Johnson, remember, is the same manager who once benched stars Rafael Palmeiro and Roberto Alomar when he was with Baltimore in a playoff series against Seattle in 1997. Knowing that neither player had much luck against Mariners ace Randy Johnson, Davey Johnson twice started utility man Jeff Reboulet and reserve first baseman Jerome Walton. Both times going to the right-handed batters -- even though they weren't as good -- worked, and the Orioles beat Johnson twice and won the series. Reboulet even homered in the decisive Game 4. Johnson is unafraid to make such unconventional calls.
The other issue is using an extra bat off the bench like veteran utility man Mark DeRosa, who has struggled with injuries and poor performance this season, or an extra reliever. Christian Garcia dominated at Triple-A this season and in 13 September appearances for Washington had a 2.13 ERA. He is an added power arm and could prove valuable. But no one else in the bullpen has pitched themselves off the roster, either.
If Johnson really wants DeRosa, he either will have to sacrifice Garcia or left-handed long reliever Tom Gorzelanny. All six of the other bullpen arms have pitched too well. The rest of the bench with Jesus Flores (catcher), Roger Bernadina (outfielder), Steve Lombardozzi (infield) and pinch hitters Chad Tracy (lefty) and Tyler Moore (righty) appears set.