Thursday, October 12, 2017

NLDS: Strasburg Breaks Mold, Saves Nats

By Jeff Kallman

Stephen Strasburg long-tossed in the Wrigley Field outfield before Game 4 Wednesday afternoon. A couple of wisenheimers in the Cub bullpen wore medical masks over their noses and mouths.

Unavailable Tuesday even before the weather-induced postponement because changing weather caused him to breathe in mold — and feel feverish enough to be pumped full of antibiotics and IV fluids — Strasburg got the last laugh.

And the Nationals may yet get the last laugh with the division series moving back to Washington for Game 5.

Strasburg did plenty enough by himself, including striking out the side in the bottom of the seventh to finish his day's 12-punchout, shutout work with a flourish. But he sure wasn't going to complain about the 4-finger shot of the next best medicine a pitcher could ask from Michael A. Taylor in the top of the eighth.

That giant sucking sound you heard even through the ill winds blowing in from the Wrigley Field bleachers was the crowd going silent as a mausoleum, after Taylor measured Cubs reliever Carl Edwards, Jr. — the same Edwards who was hit for Bryce Harper's mammoth 2-run shot in Game 2 — and sent it the other way into the basket atop the right field wall.

Edward relieved Jon Lester, who'd reliever starter Jake Arrieta after Arrieta — whose own barking hamstring kept him off the mound since 26 September — struggled through four innings with 5 walks.

"I said a little prayer when I got in there," Taylor said, meaning when he checked into the batter's box. His prayer was answered when his bat found Edwards's fastball, hitting the first grand slam in franchise history, including their decades as the Montreal Expos.

Who needs the nose masks now?

It must have been nothing compared to the prayer Nats manager Dusty Baker said after Strasburg greeted him early Wednesday morning, pumped full of pharmacologia, the first Nat out to the team bus for Wrigley, and he marched himself right into Baker's office in the visiting clubhouse to tell the skipper he wanted the ball with the Nats' season squarely on the line.

"You could see the look in his eyes," said Nats closer Sean Doolittle of Strasburg during his pre-game warmups.

You wonder what the Cubs saw in his eyes when Strasburg blew them aside one-two-three in the bottom of the first, including striking out Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo. If he looked like a psycho killer to them, maybe you couldn't blame them.

Call it the Mold Game if you must. Call it, too, the day Strasburg saved his team's season for one more day at minimum by pitching his way into the record books. Only two other pitchers have thrown two 10K+ games in a single postseason series — Sandy Koufax and Bob Gibson.

It must have been, pardon the expression, sickening for Strasburg to spend Tuesday feeling anything but human with whatever virus the damp weather sent into him. He'd actually begun feeling flu-like symptoms during the bullpen session he threw Monday, and Baker subsequently told reporters Strasburg wasn't the only Nat feeling weird from the damp weather's mold kick-ups. Just the most important one.

"He was feeling really bad. He had no endurance. He was really weak," said Nats general manager Mike Rizzo. "We switched Stras' antibiotics, gave him a higher dose, IV fluids throughout [Tuesday night], and this morning he felt much more like Stephen Strasburg. So he came into the clubhouse and went to the manager's office and said, 'I want to start this game.'"

Thus were the Nats spared the prospect of going to survival mode behind Tanner Roark, their number four starter, who actually pitched well against the Cubs the one time he faced them on the season but who isn't Strasburg on Strasburg's worst day.

For years Strasburg, the former number one draft pick, fought the "soft" label, thanks to the Tommy John surgery to which he was forced in his first major league season, and the so-called Strasburg Plan that shortened his 2012 despite it not being his call, not to mention missing last postseason thanks to a torn pronator tendon he suffered early in September.

The Nats imposed the Strasburg Plan in 2012 to save him for just moments like this. They didn't bargain on the periodic elbow issues he's fought off since, or the tendon tear last year, but they chose to spare him in 2012 just for sets like this one. They all laughed when they weren't ready to hang the Nats' administration. Who's got the last laugh now?

And, for the record, the 2012 Nats could have gone further than that division series, had they not squandered an early Game 5 6-0 lead and play the rest of that game as if trying to hit six-run homers every at-bat or throw three strikes per each pitch. Strasburg had nothing to do with that.

He had just about everything to do with sending the division series back to Washington. For one game in which, for both the Cubs and the Nats, it's win or wait till next year. Strasburg found enough to win twice this time around.

If the Nats make yet another round one exit, it won't be anywhere near Strasburg's fault. But there isn't a Nat blunder, a Nat errant pitch, a Nat error that can wreck what he fought his way back to earn decisively — respect, and irrevocable big game cred.

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