CHICAGO — Three October heartbreaks, three demoralizing first-round exits and promise left unfulfilled have the Washington Nationals conditioned not to expect much in the way of good luck when the postseason comes around. But baseball’s higher powers, coupled with modern medicine, created a flurry of favorable circumstances Wednesday at Wrigley Field, and the Nationals did not squander the good fortune.
Rain and a last-gasp antibiotic switch gifted Stephen Strasburg the time and vigor to take the ball and dominate the Chicago Cubs in a 5-0 win in Game 4 of the National League Division Series. A bad hop on a routine groundball produced their first run instead of their third out of the third inning. And fierce winds prevented the hardest-hit ball the Cubs managed against Strasburg from going over the left field wall.
In the eighth, those Wrigley breezes could not keep Michael A. Taylor’s grand slam from exiting the yard, by barely a foot, in right field.
All those events combined, in stunning fashion, to extend the Nationals’ season and give them a chance to advance to the National League Championship Series for the first time in club history. A decisive Game 5 is scheduled for Thursday night at Nationals Park.
“I felt like this game gave us a little energy,” Taylor said.
When this Game 4, originally scheduled for Tuesday afternoon, was postponed because of the weather, the Nationals said Strasburg was too sick to start the next day. He woke up feeling better Wednesday and called pitching coach Mike Maddux to tell him he wanted the ball. The Nationals 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 too ill to pitch to valiant playoff performer, shutting down the defending World Series champions, striking out 12 over seven scoreless innings.
“He had everything working tonight,” Nationals Manager Dusty Baker said.
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 replaced him in the fifth. Lester retired the first 10 men he faced before he encountered trouble in the eighth. After Ryan Zimmerman walked and was picked off, Daniel Murphy stroked a two-out single, which ended a valiant relief appearance with the Nationals leading 1-0. 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 the 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, allowed six home runs in 58⅔ innings during the regular season. But after taking a strike, Taylor smashed a fastball through the fierce wind just over the ivy-covered brick wall and into the basket in right field, 393 feet from home plate. The Nationals’ dugout erupted. The Wrigley faithful went silent.
“That had to be absolutely crushed,” Maddon said. “That’s into a gale, high, opposite field. . . . That surprised all of us, obviously.”
Said Baker: “I didn’t think any right-handed hitter could hit that ball out of the ballpark like he did tonight.”
Taylor’s blow put a bow on Strasburg’s stunning turn. The right-hander stepped onto the mound at 3:18 p.m. local time as 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 — both his illness and the grim weather. Making his third career playoff start, he relied on a wicked change-up to flummox the Cubs. He broke his own club playoff record for strikeouts — eight on that nasty change-up, three on curveballs and one on a fastball. He allowed three hits and walked two.
Baker said he didn’t ask Strasburg how he felt until after the seventh inning, when he had thrown 106 pitches — 72 for strikes — and was ready to hand the game off to his overhauled bullpen.
“I’m surprised I was able to hang in there,” Strasburg said. “I think it’s just situations where you try and break the game down, keep it simple, and just know that going in, whatever I have in the tank, I’m giving it everything I have.”
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 then launched a flyball to left field that got caught up in the mighty wind and died on the warning track, where Jayson Werth was camped to make the catch.
“Fortunately for us,” Baker said, “the elements were on our side.”
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, two members of the Nationals’ 2009 draft class, 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.
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