CHICAGO — The postponement of Tuesday’s Game 4 of the National League Division Series between the Nationals and Cubs gifted the Nationals the unexpected opportunity to hand the ball to Stephen Strasburg, perhaps the best pitcher in baseball since mid-August, with their season on the line. The one-day delay would’ve put Strasburg, Washington’s scheduled starter for Game 5, on normal rest Wednesday after dominating the Cubs for six innings in Game 1 Friday. It seemed like a no-brainer.
But Strasburg won’t start Wednesday, Nationals Manager Dusty Baker announced Tuesday evening as rain drenched Wrigley Field an hour after Game 4’s originally scheduled first pitch. Tanner Roark, Tuesday’s slated starter, will remain Washington’s starter for Game 4, which is scheduled for 4:08 p.m. Eastern and, according to a person with knowledge of the situation, Gio Gonzalez and Max Scherzer will be available out of the bullpen. Strasburg will start Game 5 back in Washington — if there is one.
Baker explained the team decided to stick with Roark because Strasburg is sick and threw a bullpen Tuesday — even though forecasts were calling for rain starting around game time through Wednesday morning. By throwing the bullpen, part of a routine that Strasburg is a stickler for, the right-hander would have all but eliminated the possibility of starting Thursday. But about an hour later, a Nationals spokesperson said Baker “misspoke” and Strasburg threw his bullpen Monday, not Tuesday, but “he’s under the weather and his endurance is down.” Strasburg was on the field playing catch before Tuesday’s intended start time.
“A lot of my team is under the weather with the change of weather and the air conditioning in the hotel and the air conditioning here,” said Baker, who added the team had to change hotels Tuesday because theirs didn’t have enough rooms to accommodate them for their extra night in Chicago. “It’s just this time of the year for mold around Chicago — I think it’s mold. I mean, I have it, too.”
Strasburg took a no-hitter into the sixth inning in Game 1, his second career playoff start. He allowed two unearned runs, compiled 10 strikeouts and needed just 81 pitches to log six innings. The Nationals lost anyway, 3-0.
Roark, meanwhile, finished his regular season with two rocky outings and hasn’t started a game since Sept. 27. In that start, he allowed six runs on seven hits and five walks in 4 2/3 innings against the last-place Phillies. He made his final regular season appearance in the finale out of the bullpen against the Pirates. He surrendered two runs in one inning.
“We have full confidence in Tanner,” Baker said three different times when addressing reporters.
On the other side, Cubs Manager Joe Maddon’s message was clear before Game 4 was even postponed: Jake Arrieta was starting no matter what and Kyle Hendricks, Chicago’s Game 1 starter, would start Game 5 if necessary.
Arrieta, an impending free agent, hasn’t pitched since Sept. 26, when he returned from a hamstring injury only to suffer a setback. He lasted just three innings. He’ll take the mound Wednesday after a two-week layoff to face a team he struggled against earlier this season — Arrieta allowed six runs on six hits and issued six walks in a loss to Washington at Nationals Park on June 27. In nine career starts against the Nationals, Arrieta has a 5.48 ERA.
“Didn’t stress it or allow it to tax the hamstring at all, and that really helped out with the recovery, allowing me to get back to 100 percent,” Arrieta said Monday. “I’ve thrown two really good bullpens with no issues. From this point on, it seems like it’s going to be a nonissue for us now.”
Washington’s chances of forcing Game 5 could’ve climbed with Tuesday’s postponement. Instead of going with their No. 4 starter, the Nationals could’ve placed the weight of another must-win game on Strasburg, the $175 million man they have groomed for such moments.
Maybe it won’t matter. Maybe the Nationals will win Game 4 and force a Game 5 without the pitcher boasting a 0.76 ERA over his past nine starts. They’ll have Gonzalez and Scherzer, who threw 98 pitches in Game 3 Monday, available in relief. Maybe that will be enough and this strange episode will be forgotten.
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