The Washington Nationals enter the playoffs with the best record in all of baseball. Stephen Strasburg was a major contributor to the Nats' success this season, but Washington will have to find another ace as the playoffs begin. The question now arises: who will emerge as the ace of the postseason?
The two likeliest candidates are Gio Gonzalez and Jordan Zimmermann.
The league has watched Gonzalez emerge as one of the best pitchers in the league while Zimmermann had another stellar year but managed to fly completely under the radar once again in D.C.
It is not hard to get overlooked in D.C. when Strasburg is pitching in front of you.
Entering October, Gonzalez and Zimmermann have combined for a 33-16 record this season and have been exceptional in September and October.
Gonzalez started five games since September began and compiled a 4-1 record with a 1.74 ERA with 31 strikeouts in 31 innings pitched. Zimmermann has racked up a 3-0 record with a 4.41 ERA and his highest strikeout rate of any month, striking out 34 in 34.2 innings.
The Nats are hoping that at least one of these two will be able to dominate the NL in the postseason. History tells us that Gonzalez struggles in the middle of the summer but figures things out as the season draws to an end.
Throughout his career, he has a 4.79 ERA in July and a 3.97 ERA in August, the two highest totals for any months. His ERA in September and October, however, is 3.33, a drastic improvement from the summer months. This tends to make him a bit more of a standout as the postseason gets underway.
In Zimmermann's career, he has pitched only 55.2 innings with 11 starts in September and October and has a 4.69 ERA. Fall baseball is a relatively unfamiliar territory for Zimmermann.
When debating who can step up to be the ace of the staff in the playoffs, it is imperative to remember what all the Nats' potential opponents have in common: they are all quality teams.
This season Gonzalez has a lower ERA (2.82 vs. 2.97) against teams with a record of .500 or better to go along with a 10-5 record. Zimmermann, on the other hand, is 6-5 with a 3.48 ERA against such teams, an ERA of more than a full run higher than against teams under .500 (2.43).
The Nats have secured home-field advantage by winning 98 games this season, and the NL has secured home-field advantage in the World Series. This means that crucial games that could decide the National League champion or even the World Series champion might be played at Nationals ballpark.
There is a great chance that Gonzalez or Zimmermann will be on the mound when these games are played.
This season, Gonzalez has a 2.38 ERA and a 9-4 record in D.C. while Zimmermann boasts a 3.54 ERA and 5-3 record at home. A huge factor in ballparks is if pitchers can keep the ball in the yard. This is the area in which Gonzalez is remarkable.
Gonzalez is poised to keep the opposition in the yard when he is pitching with home-field advantage, allowing only three home runs in 14 home starts.
Who is more likely to step up as the Nats' ace?
Meanwhile, Zimmermann has started half of his games at home and allowed 11 of the 18 home runs he has allowed on the season in D.C. Keeping the ball in the yard is essential in the playoffs as one swing could change everything.
Another factor less often thought of will be the man behind the plate in the playoffs.
Kurt Suzuki is likely to start most of the games as the catcher for the Nats in the postseason. Suzuki has caught 10 games behind the plate for Gonzalez and nine for Zimmermann since being acquired by the Nats. Gonzalez has a 2.00 ERA while Zimmermann has a 4.44 ERA. Zimmermann has clearly not meshed as well as Gonzalez has with Suzuki calling the games.
The facts seem to suggest that Gonzalez will likely be the candidate to be the ace of the Nats in the postseason.
But perhaps this is the stage that Zimmermann finally gets to show the world that he is not just the third starter on the Nationals but rather a legitimate ace capable of carrying his team to a championship.
When it comes to the MLB postseason it is important to remember one thing: this is October baseball we are talking about, and anything is possible.