After all the contradictions and misinformation and confusion and questions and mold – can’t forget the mold – none of it mattered in the Washington Nationals’ attempt to save their season. What did was Stephen Strasburg’s right arm. He took to the Wrigley Field pitcher’s mound at 3:21 p.m. CT. He last walked off it at 5:50 p.m. In the 149 minutes in between, the only thing that was sick was the movement on his dastardly changeup.
For seven innings, Strasburg played puppeteer, with the Chicago Cubs his helpless marionettes. They flailed and thrashed, out in front and behind, the defending world champions enfeebled by a 29-year-old whose career, to this point, was defined as much by what he hadn’t done as what he had. On Tuesday, the Nationals said he wasn’t going to pitch. On Wednesday, the Cubs wished he hadn’t.
A win-or-go-home Game 5 on Thursday night will decide which of the two advances to face the Los Angeles Dodgers after the Nationals’ 5-0 victory in Game 4 of the National League Division Series on Wednesday. Whatever the true condition of Strasburg – he said he had some sort of virus and used antibiotics (which don’t work on viruses) and Chicago, smelling a rat, continued to prepare as though he was going to pitch – he finished seven innings, struck out 12 Cubs and didn’t allow a run. He threw his changeup 32 times. The Cubs swung and missed on 15.
The changeup was the Nationals’ second-best okey-doke of the day. They penciled in Strasburg on the lineup card less than 24 hours after saying Tanner Roark was going to start because Strasburg was ill, possibly, according to manager Dusty Baker, due to mold. Whether it was antibiotics or an IV or a far more powerful analgesic than either – the knowledge that the baseball world never would look at him the same if he didn’t pitch Game 4 – Strasburg said he felt well enough Wednesday morning to call his pitching coach, Mike Maddux, and say: “Give me the ball.”
With it, he turned in the game of his career and sent the Nationals back home, where they’ve done this Game 5 thing before. Last year, Clayton Kershaw buried their season with a hero relief appearance. Four years earlier, the St. Louis Cardinals used a four-run ninth inning to stun Washington. Nationals Park is a haunted house that opens in mid-October.
Who gets to change that? Baker could go with Roark, who last started 14 days ago and last threw a pitch Oct. 1, or Gio Gonzalez, who pitched Game 2 and is on full rest. Just as they planned for Strasburg, the Cubs anticipate Gonzalez will face Kyle Hendricks, their Game 1 starter who shut the Nationals out over seven two-hit innings.
That first game, in which Hendricks outdueled Strasburg, portended the rest of the series. During the regular season, the Cubs and Nationals were the second- and third-most-prolific offenses in the NL, just behind the Colorado Rockies. Over four games in the division series, they have combined for 34 hits. Their slash line is bad/worse/NSFW. The only offense of note in Game 4 came on Michael A. Taylor’s eighth-inning grand slam off Wade Davis, who was pitching only because Carl Edwards Jr.’s late-game troubles again surfaced.
In this postseason of relief pitching, the Cubs and Nationals have bucked the trend, though the all-hands-on-deck nature of a Game 5 means it’s not just Gonzalez or Hendricks available. Max Scherzer, two days after his brilliant Game 3 start, should be good for an inning, maybe two, and Roark could be employed as a situational guy – say, for one out against Javier Baez, who struggles against curveballs and changeups, the two best pitches Roark throws. The Cubs can counter with Jose Quintana, their big midseason acquisition and author of an excellent 5 2/3-inning start that beat Scherzer, should Hendricks falter early.
Neither manager should waste time with a quick hook, not based on the paucity of offense in this series. One run is a gift, two a bounty, three a plethora. Urgency is a buzzword of this postseason, and nothing calls for exigency like a game that can save a season.
It’s what made Strasburg’s performance Wednesday so spectacular. Keeping your team in the game, giving it an opportunity to win, is one thing. Embarrassing the other team is something different altogether, something so few pitchers possess the ability to do. Strasburg is one of them, and with 22 strikeouts across 14 innings and a 0.00 ERA against the Cubs, he has looked every bit the No. 1 overall pick he was and $175 million pitcher he is.
It seems like forever ago that the Nationals shut down Strasburg for the playoffs, fearful that as he returned from Tommy John surgery in 2012, the postseason would tax his elbow. Fair or not, the reputation as someone who did not want to pitch in big games clung to him, and the communications debacle on Tuesday about his status only furthered it. Now, nobody can accuse Strasburg of ducking the moment drenched in spotlight. He asked for the ball, took it and did exactly what the Nationals needed to save their season.