It’s an overused cliché to say an athlete “left it all on the field” after a fantastic outing. But when that phrase is used in the right situation, when an athlete guts through a serious physical ailment and the odds are completely against them, those performances become legendary.
We remember Curt Schilling pitching with a bloody sock to help the Boston Red Sox complete the greatest comeback in postseason history. The highlight of Kerri Strung landing a nearly perfect vault on a severely injured ankle is seared into our brains. We’ve read countless re-tellings of Michael Jordan dropping 38 on the Utah Jazz in the NBA Finals.
On Wednesday, Washington Nationals starter Stephen Strasburg entered that group, turning in his own flu game with a dominant start over the Chicago Cubs in Game 4 of the National League Division Series.
Strasburg didn’t have to be carried off the field when the game was over. He was the one who did the carrying. For seven innings, Strasburg put the Nationals on his back. He allowed three hits and two walks, striking out 12 in a scoreless start. Strasburg induced an incredible 22 swinging strikes, 15 of which came on his change-up, in the 5-0 win with the Nationals season on the line.
And to think one of the guttiest postseason performances in recent history almost didn’t happen. Up until roughly five hours before game-time, Strasburg wasn’t expected to start. First, it was because he was being replaced by Tanner Roark. Next, it was because he threw his bullpen on the wrong day. Then, it was because Chicago mold made him ill. Finally, it was because he didn’t feel up making the start.
Hours before the game, general manager Mike Rizzo attempted to clarify all that, saying Strasburg had been dealing with “flu-like symptoms” since his last start. He had fought weakness, fever and chills in the days leading up to the start. In a last ditch effort, the Nationals altered Strasburg’s antibiotics Tuesday. He woke up feeling good enough to give it a go.
It’s impossible to decipher the truthfulness behind any of those cover-ups. Though the real story will to be told eventually. All that matters is that, at some point after Twitter exploded with conspiracy theories and before Game 4 took place, Strasburg decided to take the ball.
“Games like this, you have to go out there and give it everything you have, whatever it is,” Strasburg said after the game. “So I called [Nationals pitching coach Mike Maddux] in the morning and said, ‘Just give me the ball.’ That’s what he did.”
It’s not an exaggeration to call this a pivotal decision in Strasburg’s career. Over the years, Strasburg has developed a reputation for being soft. He was criticized for allowing the team to shut him down during the 2012 playoff race, and became known for imploding during starts at the first sign of trouble. An error behind him, uncooperative weather or even a little Icy Hot in the wrong place would ruin what was shaping up to be a strong performance.
In the brief hours when it looked like Strasburg would sit out Game 4, those takes resurfaced. Being hospitalized was the only excuse some would accept for Strasburg missing the game. Former Cubs catcher David Ross said he wouldn’t be able to look Strasburg in the eye for making that choice.
Fewer than 24 hours later, Strasburg re-wrote the narrative. His illness was no longer a weakness, but the key to his success during the contest.
“I think it probably was a blessing in disguise,” he told reporters. “I think my energy wasn’t really like through the roof, so I think it was easier for me to manage it.”
If anyone looked anemic early, it was the Nationals’ offense. Despite Strasburg’s sensational start, the team’s hitters struggled to give its pitcher adequate run support. Washington scored just one run while Strasburg was in the game. It came only after Addison Russell mishandled a ball at short.
After giving the Nationals everything he had over 106 pitches, Strasburg was done. But because we’re talking about the Nationals, nothing about his departure felt safe.
History told us Strasburg wasn’t supposed to come through in the first place, so it was guaranteed the Nats ugly postseason history would rear its head eventually. Since returning to D.C., the team hasn’t advanced past the NLDS in three tries. It was a Pete Kozma single the first time, an Aaron Barrett meltdown the second time and a disaster inning featuring six different pitchers the last time. The Nats seemed destined to find a crushing way to blow this game.
Except, that didn’t happen. The team finally picked up Strasburg in the eighth, when Michael A. Taylor crushed a grand slam, giving Strasburg the win and cementing the start as one of the best we’ve seen in recent postseason history. While the win has lost its luster in recent years, let’s face it, this performance wouldn’t be remembered years from now had the Nationals been eliminated.
Because of the start, it’s not just Strasburg who can experience a change in reputation. His exceptional performance gives the entire franchise a chance to cast away its postseason demons and finally win a playoff series.
Recent history tells us there’s no way that’s going to happen. But Strasburg proved Wednesday that narratives exist so they can be re-written.
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