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Stephen Strasburg’s Stellar Start Saves Nationals, Forces Game 5 Against Cubs

After a full news cycle of chaos, the Nationals emerged from Tuesday's rainout and staved off elimination in Game 4.

The NLDS is going back to Washington. Thanks to Stephen Strasburg’s brilliant start and a late grand slam off the bat of Michael A. Taylor, the Nationals topped the Cubs, 5–0, in Game 4 of the NLDS to avoid elimination and force a winner-take-all Game 5 in the nation’s capital on Thursday night.

Sick Strasburg Sickens Cubs’ Bats

The controversy raged all night and all morning: Why was Strasburg not starting? The Tuesday rainout had been a blessing, offering the Nationals the chance to use their co-ace on regular rest, but hardly had the game been postponed when manager Dusty Baker came out and said that Strasburg was too sick to pitch. A plethora of silliness enveloped the whole mess: a supposed bullpen session that Strasburg threw on Tuesday that ruled him out for Wednesday was said to be a miscommunication on Baker’s part; the Washington skipper vaguely blamed “mold” for Strasburg’s illness, who was said to have flu-like symptoms.

Reports circulated that Strasburg had turned down the start, saying he was nowhere near 100%. The hot takes followed: How could being “under the weather” be enough to keep Strasburg from pitching in an elimination game—from trying to save his team’s season? [Insert old-timey Hall of Fame pitcher here] would have made that start even if he were fighting a combo of pneumonia, rabies and the plague.

Then everything flipped on Wednesday morning: Strasburg would in fact start, thanks to new and improved cocktail of antibiotics and medicine. Whether it was that or an unhealthy dose of peer pressure that forced Strasburg to the mound on a frigid, rainy day at Wrigley Field, we don’t know. But there he was, trying his best to force a Game 5 back in Washington.

Spoiler alert: He did it. Over seven of the best innings you’ll ever see a starter throw, Strasburg was untouchable, striking out 12 and allowing just three hits and two walks as he kept the Nationals alive. Using a changeup that disappeared as if part of a magic trick, he was practically unhittable, garnering an absurd 21 swinging strikes on his 106 pitches. He struck out the side twice, including his final inning of work, and whiffed Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo in five of their six plate appearances against him. Only two batters made it as far as scoring position: Ben Zobrist, who doubled in the third inning and got to third with two outs but was stranded there; and Willson Contreras, who reached second on an error (by Strasburg, ironically enough) with one out in the fourth but advanced no further after strikeouts by Zobrist and Addison Russell.

It was the kind of start that forever makes a pitcher’s reputation, the kind of game that fans will talk about in awed tones for years to come. Hopefully, it’ll also wipe away all the years of criticism and calls of being “soft” that have plagued Strasburg since he was drafted. In the biggest game of his life and likely not at 100%, he was every bit the ace he needed to be—and that he always has been, too sick to pitch or not.


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Whither the Cubs’ Offense?

Much has been made of Washington’s weakened lineup, which came into Game 4 in a massive slump (and, the eighth inning aside once again, didn’t do much to change that on Wednesday). But Chicago’s offense has been equally stuck in neutral. Blanked in Game 4, the Cubs have managed just eight runs through 35 innings of play and put a grand total of two on the board in their pair of games at Wrigley Field, including zero home runs at the normally friendly confines and no hits over their final four innings of play in Game 4.

There were a lot of factors against them in Game 4, from Strasburg finding the cheat codes to the miserable weather—wet, cold and windy, with a stiff breeze blowing in from the outfield that robbed Russell of a two-run home run in the third. But with the exception of Rizzo, who has reached base in all four games, no one is hitting. Bryant has struck out nine times in 16 plate appearances, including with two on and one out in the eighth, against only three hits. Russell has only two hits, both singles, in 15 trips to the plate. Free-swinging Javy Baez has punched out six times in 10 plate appearances. And atop the lineup, the combo of Zobrist, Jon Jay and Albert Almora has gone hitless in 13 leadoff at-bats.

Will manager Joe Maddon play mix-and-match with his bench for Game 5? Facing lefty Gio Gonzalez, he could use switch-hitting rookie Ian Happ in the outfield in place of Jay or Jason Heyward, or he could replace Baez at second base with Zobrist after two games in which the veteran stung the ball repeatedly. Either way, you should expect one of baseball’s most constant tinkerers to do something to try to snap his team out of its skid with the season in the balance.

Game 5 Awaits

So this series will come down to a final game at Nationals Park. For Washington, it will be Gonzalez, who started Game 2, on the hill; for Chicago, it’s Game 1 starter Kyle Hendricks who gets the nod. The former was solid if unexceptional in his turn last Saturday, yielding three runs in five innings on a pair of home runs. The latter was magnificent, shutting the Nationals out over seven innings using his darting changeup.

The advantage would seemingly go to the Cubs, though their bullpen will be without one potentially useful piece, as Maddon went to Game 2 starter Jon Lester in relief of Arrieta. The lefty was brilliant over 3 2/3 innings but won’t be available Thursday should Hendricks have to depart his start early. If Maddon does need length, he’ll have to go with Game 3 starter Jose Quintana, who hasn’t pitched out of the bullpen since his rookie season in 2012, or veteran John Lackey, who hasn’t made an appearance so far this series.

The rest of the Cubs’ bullpen is in good shape, though how much Maddon will be able to trust Carl Edwards Jr. remains to be seen. The slim righty was the man who blew Game 2, and in Game 4, he helped put things out of reach, walking a pair with two outs in the eighth to load the bases and set up Taylor’s grand slam—a homer that came off closer Wade Davis, who was pulled shortly thereafter to preserve him for Game 5. The late innings have been anything but automatic this October for Chicago.

As for Washington, Game 4 may have cost them top righty Ryan Madson, who needed 28 pitches to navigate a scoreless yet difficult eighth inning. But the Nationals will have closer Sean Doolittle ready to go, as he needed only 11 pitches in a scoreless ninth, as well as setup man Brandon Kintzler. And perhaps biggest of all, Washington will also have Game 3 starter Max Scherzer and scheduled Game 4 starter Tanner Roark available, should Baker need them—and he likely will in the all-hands finale.