CHICAGO — Stephen Strasburg woke up feeling much better Wednesday. The Chicago Cubs went to bed feeling much worse.
Because Strasburg, battling illness, pitched one of the most rugged, attacking postseason games in recent times, fanning a dozen Cubs in seven scoreless innings while allowing just three hits in a 5-0 win at Wrigley Field, his Nationals will be rewarded with a Game 5 in this National League Division Series on Thursday in Washington. The loser weeps. The winner flies to Los Angeles to play the Dodgers for the pennant and a trip to the World Series.
Nobody in baseball is ever going to see Strasburg the same way after the performance he produced in Wrigley Field on a raw, windy, misty evening. The monstrous talent he has always showed, the refinements in his pitching that have accumulated every year and, finally, the maturity that has developed over the past three years, in the face of nagging criticism, have come together to produce a finished product that was long anticipated and, now, can perhaps simply be appreciated and enjoyed.
Some highlights among the 106 pitches Strasburg fired: Striking out 2016 MVP Kris Bryant three times and Anthony (“Respect Me”) Rizzo twice. His work Wednesday night at Wrigley was of the type that will linger for the next 10, 20 or perhaps 50 years. His body chock full of antibiotics, his face pale — it was an outing that will be recounted for some time. And he just made it a lot tougher to call your boss and ask for a sick day.
If you say that you have flu-like symptoms, chills, fever, dehydration, weakness, no stamina and have been put on extra-powerful antibiotic dosages, plus IV’s several times a day, here’s the answer you might get: Oh, you mean the Strasburg Symptoms? That didn’t stop him from calling pitching coach Mike Maddux and saying, “Mad Dog, all right, let’s do it. Give me the ball.”
Man, I am really going to miss those sick days.
Strasburg won despite continued nonsupport from an offense that gave him only one run, and that on a fielding error by Cubs shortstop Addison Russell in the third inning. He made that 1-0 lead stand up until a grand slam by Michael A. Taylor in the top of the eighth off shutdown reliever Wade Davis. Taylor’s blast to right-center field bore through a steady flag-whipping straight-in-toward-home-plate wind and landed like a gut punch in the basket just above the ivied brick wall.
“Whoo, man. He was good,” said second baseman Daniel Murphy of the right-hander. “How many punch-outs did he end up having? [Answer: 12.] Just, change-up anytime. Fastball was electric. He was able to get back in the count with the curveball and throw it for the kill. He had it all working tonight. It was fun to watch.”
Afterward, Strasburg, parchment-faced, said, “It was a challenge. The [illness] I got sucked the life out of me every single day, and the antibiotics didn’t touch it. [Tuesday] we switched [medicine] and it kicked in. I wouldn’t say great, but better.”
The golfer, and golf gambler, Sam Snead famously said, “Beware of the half-sick golfer.” The player will only have enough energy to focus on the next shot, won’t overswing or get in his own head. Thus, illness can beat a dozen shrinks.
“[Being sick] may have been a blessing in disguise,” Strasburg said. “My energy was not through the roof, so it was easier to manage it.”
So, if the Nats meet Los Angeles, which is more important: Keep some of those germs to infect Strasburg, or remember the name of the antibiotic that kills them?
“He throws that fastball, and it rises,” said the Cubs’ Rizzo, “and the change-up falls off the planet.”
What about the breaking ball, Anthony? “Probably like you going to Sluggers [batting cage] and trying to hit. . . . Basically, anybody who goes in batting cage and doesn’t know how to hit, that’s what it feels like.”
Just imagine if he hadn’t felt like death warmed over.
The baseball world has not caught up to where Strasburg is, as I’ve written probably too many times. In his past 67 starts, back to June 2015, the Nats’ record is 53-14, and three of those losses were when he was trying to pitch hurt and ended up on the disabled list. This year, he played it safe when he had the first signs of arm problems, went on the DL and came back — as Godzilla.
In his 10 starts since returning, including 14 innings without allowing an earned run in this NLDS, his ERA is 0.69. That’s not an ERA. That’s like the distance between electrons in a microchip.
While this series is tied at two games apiece, the most powerful piece of information may be that the Nats now have two big-game, gimme-the-ball, overpowering aces. Max Scherzer is not flying alone.
Even since his early years, when he had injuries both serious and mysterious, as well as the famous Strasburg Shutdown to protect his arm in 2012, those who comment on baseball have been forced to take a Strasburg Position. Injury prone? Diva? Hothouse flower? Unfortunately, few psychological influences are more powerful than “confirmation bias.” Once we take a public position, we unconsciously distort all future data so that it confirms what we already believe.
Perhaps nobody in baseball has suffered more, or more unfairly, in recent years from confirmation bias than Strasburg. Once, he was immature, extremely shy, easily distracted on the mound and his quirks had quirks. But he grew up, got married, has two children, signed a $175 million contract and now, at 29, has changed. A lot. As people tend to do. His critics, at least the ones who question his competitiveness or ability to cope with pressure, are the ones stuck in mud.
The Nats are now one win, but a very difficult one, from advancing and looking at the prospect of having both aces firing in the NLCS or, brace yourself, beyond. Plenty of clubs have good pitchers. But nobody has the equivalent of Scherzer and Strasburg, a pair who have allowed the Cubs just six hits in 20⅓ innings while fanning 29.
Some thought Strasburg might walk out of the Nats bullpen under the bleachers here before the first pitch with a thermometer in his mouth, blankets wrapped around him and a hot water bottle on his back. Instead, he just took the mound with the best three-pitch arsenal in the game — a combination of a 96 mph fastball with command, a curveball he could throw in the zone or out and a change-up so unnatural that it left the Cubs looking like they needed to get nine chiropractors to get their spines back in alignment by Game 5.
Now, regardless of how the Nats’ season turns out, the public view of Strasburg will almost certainly change. Divas just got a good name. Hothouse flowers will be all the rage in D.C.
It’s time to rewrite the Strasburg saga. When this game is remembered, just call it the evening when Stephen Strasburg still felt ill, but his pitching was absolutely sick.
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