CHICAGO — After three October heartbreaks of demoralizing first-round exits, baseball’s higher powers dispensed a gift to the Washington Nationals in the form of heavy rain in northeast Illinois on Tuesday evening. The weather, after some back and forth among Nationals decision-makers, ultimately allowed the team to start Stephen Strasburg in Wednesday’s must-win Game 4, a gift the Nationals wisely did not let go to waste.
Strasburg was utterly dominant for seven scoreless innings and Michael A. Taylor provided an eighth-inning grand slam for a 5-0 win that sends this National League Division Series back to Washington for a decisive Game 5 on Thursday night.
Strasburg was initially deemed too sick Tuesday, unable to cash in on the unexpected opportunity, but woke up feeling better Wednesday. He told his bosses he wanted the ball. They gave it to him because, even at less than 100 percent, they determined he gave them better odds to extend their season than Tanner Roark.
And in a span of 24 dizzying hours, Strasburg, a man baseball determined was destined for these moments nearly a decade ago, shredded the harsh reputation, warranted or not, that preceded him. He went from always unavailable when needed to valiant playoff performer, shutting down the defending World Series champions.
For the second time in five days, Strasburg made a Cubs lineup accustomed to the October spotlight look overmatched. But the Nationals’ bats could not find holes for their consistent loud contact against Cubs starter Jake Arrieta and threatened to spoil Strasburg’s outing the way his dynamite Game 1 performance was wasted.
Washington managed one unearned run in four innings off Arrieta before Jon Lester, notorious for his inability to hold runners on, replaced him in the fifth. Lester retired the first 10 men he faced before encountering trouble in the eighth inning of a 1-0 game.
Daniel Murphy stroked a two-out single to center field to end Lester’s relief appearance. Right-hander Carl Edwards Jr. entered and promptly issued walks to Anthony Rendon and Matt Wieters to load the bases for Taylor.
Edwards started Taylor with a pitch inside for ball one and didn’t throw another one. After catcher Willson Contreras paid Edwards a visit, Cubs Manager Joe Maddon emerged with a lineup card to inform home plate umpire of a double switch: closer Wade Davis for Edwards on the mound and Ian Happ for Jason Heyward in right field.
Davis, the Cubs’ lone 2017 all-star representative, left a 94-mph fastball over the plate and Taylor pulverized it through the fierce wind just over the ivy-covered brick wall and onto the screen in right field for the first playoff grand slam in franchise history. The Nationals dugout erupted. The Wrigley faithful went silent. Washington’s bullpen had some cushion and didn’t squander it.
On Tuesday, about an hour after Game 4 was postponed, Nationals Manager Dusty Baker declared \Roark would start Wednesday. The announcement was stunning. Strasburg was on full rest Wednesday. He had been arguably the best pitcher in baseball since mid-August. He had dominated the Cubs in Game 1. A healthy Strasburg surely gave the Nationals a better chance of survival.
But Baker said Strasburg wasn’t healthy. He was sick, with flulike symptoms. And on top of that, he threw a bullpen session Tuesday, effectively eliminating the possibility of starting Wednesday. Then, about an hour later, a Nationals spokesperson said Baker “misspoke” about the bullpen. Strasburg threw it Monday, not Tuesday. He wasn’t starting because he was sick and his “endurance is down.”
That was just the first of many twists, which continued until the Nationals announced Strasburg would start at 12:50 p.m. local time — 2 hours 18 minutes before first pitch.
Strasburg stepped onto the mound at 3:18 p.m. A mist draped over Wrigley Field. The thermometer read 59 degrees, and a howling wind was blowing in. Strasburg wore short sleeves. He pitched as if he was undeterred by the conditions — his and the weather — too. Making his third career playoff start, he relied on a wicked change-up to flummox the Cubs. He broke his own club playoff record with 12 strikeouts — seven on that nasty change-up, four on curveballs and one on a fastball. He allowed three hits, walked two batters and threw 106 pitches — 72 for strikes.
The Cubs had their best opportunity to score in the second inning, when Ben Zobrist smacked a one-out double into the right field corner. Addison Russell was up next and, after taking curveball for a strike, the Cubs shortstop launched a flyball to left field. Initially, it seemed destined to land somewhere on Waveland Avenue. But the ball got caught up in the mighty wind and died on the warning track, where Jayson Werth was camped to make the catch.
Strasburg was rewarded for his successful tightrope walk with run support, sparked, finally, by Trea Turner. After failing to reach base in his first 13 plate appearances in the series, the shortstop lashed a double into the left field corner off Arrieta, who was making his first start since Sept. 26. With Werth at the plate and Turner’s speed on the Cubs’ minds, Arrieta threw a pitch past Contreras, who was crouched higher than usual in case Turner tried to steal third. Turner took third on the wild pitch anyway.
Two batters later, Zimmerman hit a groundball to Russell, who charged and had the ball bounce off the heel of his glove. Zimmerman reached on the error as Turner scored the game’s first run.
The offense stalled for the next four innings, leaving Strasburg no margin for error. But he didn’t waver. He put up zeros, seemingly getting better the deeper he went, until Taylor picked him up. Five years to the day Werth provided the first unforgettable playoff moment in Nationals history with a walk-off home run against the St. Louis Cardinals in 2012, Strasburg and Taylor partnered to force another Game 5 with their own memorable performances. The ending to this chapter is unknown, but this much is certain: The Nationals lived to see another day.
More on the Nationals:
D.C. Sports Bog: Best and worst moments from Nationals’ 5-0 win in Game 4
Stephen Strasburg, Michael A. Taylor put Nats on their backs and force Game 5 – Washington Post