CHICAGO — So, once again, a fifth game in the first round. Totally can’t handle it. Wouldn’t have it any other way.
There has been no more tumultuous, enthralling, ridiculous, newsy day in the history of the Washington Nationals than Wednesday, Oct. 11, 2017. Major League Baseball announced it would move the Montreal Expos to the nation’s capital 4,760 days earlier. Comb through them all — Livan Hernandez throwing the first D.C. pitch in 33 years, Ryan Zimmerman walking off the Atlanta Braves to christen a new ballpark, Bryce Harper being drafted, Jordan Zimmermann throwing a no-hitter, Max Scherzer striking out 20 — and nothing compares to this chilly fall day in the Windy City.
Were there self-inflicted wounds on the part of the Nationals in how they handled the Stephen Strasburg-won’t-pitch-oh-wait-a-minute-now-he-will debacle? Sure. Of course. Do they matter now, after Strasburg spent Wednesday twisting the Chicago Cubs into so many pretzels, the author of a season-extending 5-0 victory in Game 4 of this National League Division Series? Nope. Not really.
“Down 2-1,” second baseman Daniel Murphy said, “your entire thought process is to get it back home to D.C.”
That they did. So what matters is that Strasburg took the ball, and more than delivered. His seven-inning, three-hit, 12-strikeout performance not only forced Thursday’s Game 5 — to take place back at Nationals Park — but it all but certainly altered his reputation, which just 24 hours earlier seemed beyond salvation. What matters is that an entire fan base — and even a clubhouse — that once wondered about him now has all the answers to their questions.
What matters is that Strasburg — with the significant help of Michael A. Taylor’s eighth-inning grand slam, which somehow sliced through a pulverizing breeze off Lake Michigan — pushed the season beyond a too-much-to-take Wednesday and into what could be a franchise-changing Thursday.
So we’re here again. The Nats have twice hosted such affairs, and the wounds those games have opened — against St. Louis in 2012, and against the Los Angeles Dodgers last year — fester still. The Nats, who wrote their own history and have endured that pain, now must welcome another stroll through the gantlet.
“This is what you play for,” Zimmerman said. “Everyone would love to just go 11-0 and win the World Series. Anyone who says they would rather not do that is lying to you. That never happens. This is what playoff baseball is about. Unfortunately, in the past, we haven’t been able to come through. But that’s in the past.”
Maybe the drama is past, too. Maybe.
If the Nationals had lost Wednesday — and thus, had another season with the greatest hopes possible end in excruciating disappointment — there would have been the taste of old, stale coffee in the mouths of fans and players alike headed into another early winter. The Nats, and how they handled Strasburg’s situation — first announcing Tanner Roark would pitch because Strasburg was sick, but then apparently discovering a recuperated Strasburg on Wednesday morning — became the talk of the sport for one frantic news cycle, and not in a positive way.
They made it easy to criticize how they presented their choices. Strasburg’s fortitude was openly questioned by former major leaguers who now serve as television analysts. Shoot, I typed out more than 1,200 words asking, basically: What’s going on?
But the sport was abuzz.
“If you have a communication breakdown anywhere,” said Indians Manager Terry Francona, asked about the issue before his own team’s fifth game against the Yankees in Cleveland, “you’re probably going to embarrass yourself.”
Yet Strasburg provided the balm, all but obliterating the embarrassment. Within hours of blistering criticism he neither heard nor cared about, he lifted himself and his team at once. How good was he?
“Whoo,” Murphy said. “Man.”
What else to say?
What’s important: Strasburg afforded this franchise nine more innings. How will they play out? Buckle up.
“Is Gio going tomorrow?” Murphy asked, genuinely. Roark, of course, could pitch. But so could the lefty, Gio Gonzalez, who started Game 2 — the Nationals’ other victory in the series.
So, Daniel, we don’t yet know.
“All right,” he said. “Cheers. We’ll find out when they announce it. Game 5, we’ll take it.”
The Nationals — and primarily General Manager Mike Rizzo, Manager Dusty Baker and pitching coach Mike Maddux — had some serious strategy to think through on the flight home. Who will start Game 5?
“I’m not sure,” Baker said. “I’m not trying to be coy at all, because that was the theme of the day with Stras.”
And, collectively, we’re all trying to move on from that.
There is an argument that Gonzalez, who has not made a relief appearance since 2009, is the obvious choice to start, with Roark behind him. But, if Roark starts, Cubs Manager Joe Maddon would probably start his left-handed-hitting lineup — featuring slugger Kyle Schwarber — and Baker would be able, then, to insert Gonzalez in the middle innings and force Maddon to bench some of his best players.
Oh, the strategy of it all.
The Nationals, though, would appear to have the — don’t say it, don’t say it, don’t say it — advantage. Against Kyle Hendricks, you say? He’s the guy who put the Nats in this series-long slump to begin with, what with his seven innings of two-hit ball in Game 1. Even now, with the series tied, the Nats are hitting .130. How does this group have an advantage — against him?
“I felt like this game gave us a little energy,” Taylor said.
“Momentum’s huge,” said shortstop Trea Turner, who finally got on base.
But consider what the Nats can throw at the Cubs, and what the Cubs can’t throw at the Nats. Start Gonzalez or Roark. Go to the other at the first sign of trouble. Plus, Max Scherzer — he of the two Cy Young Awards and the no-hit stuff — had told Baker he was available for one inning Wednesday. He didn’t throw it. Couldn’t he give two Thursday?
You know who couldn’t give two in relief of Hendricks? Cubs lefty Jon Lester, who was brilliant in a 3⅔ -inning stint in Game 4. But he’s spent, a weapon no longer.
And the Cubs’ “best” relievers are now shaky, too. Would Maddon really turn to Carl Edwards Jr. again? Edwards coughed up Harper’s series-altering homer in Game 2. On Wednesday, he faced two batters and walked them both, setting up Taylor’s grand slam — which came off closer Wade Davis. The world champs, they have chinks in the armor, and they’re significant.
So Game 5, again.
“There’s only a couple of us on this team that have been to the top,” veteran outfielder Jayson Werth said. “I want us to experience it. I want to get to the top. . . . Tomorrow’s a big day. We’ve got to win tomorrow.”
Do that, move on to the 4,762nd day in Nationals history, and the insanity of Wednesday will be overshadowed not only by Strasburg’s performance, but by something more important: A step this franchise has never taken before.
For more by Barry Svrluga, visit washingtonpost.com/svrluga.
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