CHICAGO — There are communication breakdowns and then there are snafus of farcical ineptitude that, if you are a professional sports franchise, you never want to have happen when your team is performing on a national stage. Take your bow, Nats.
Here’s the deal, confirmed from numerous sources, all in agreement, on why Tanner Roark is starting Game 4 of the National League Division Series for the Washington Nationals at Wrigley Field on Wednesday with Stephen Strasburg slated to start Game 5, if necessary, on Thursday in Washington.
Strasburg is sick.
In other words, The Rainout From Heaven, which came Tuesday and appeared to set up perfectly for the Nationals to start Strasburg in Game 4 on Wednesday, won’t help the Nationals much at all.
Strasburg, the hottest pitcher in baseball, will not be on the mound, working on normal full rest, trying to save the Nats’ season Wednesday. And Gio Gonzalez, one of the best lefties in the game this season, will not be starting a Game 5, if necessary, back in D.C. on Thursday on full rest.
Strasburg is not the only Nationals player to be sick. B ut Strasburg was sick enough that he cut short his normal bullpen session Monday after just 20 to 25 pitches. The Nats, knowing that Game 4 might be rained out, asked Strasburg whether he could pitch Wednesday.
“I’ll give you what I’ve got,” Strasburg said, according to General Manager Mike Rizzo, who was in the meeting.
Those are the words you want to hear, in one sense, because it means your $175 million star will suck it up and perform. On the other hand, they’re exactly the words you don’t want to hear because Strasburg has, in recent years, shown such a high tolerance for pain that he has touched it out until he ended up on the disabled list. So, “I’ll give you what I’ve got” means the guy is sick as a dog.
“We just think it’s smarter to give Stras the extra day to get better and, hopefully, have him at full strength if we get to a Game 5,” Rizzo said.
So, Tanner Roark, a durable workhorse who had excellent seasons in 2014 and 2016 but has been inconsistent this season, will start Game 4 — with an armada of arms behind him. Gonzalez, with three days’ rest, will come out of the bullpen if needed. Max Scherzer has already volunteered for an inning of duty on one day’s rest. And the trio of Brandon Kintzler, Ryan Madson and Sean Doolittle, plus Matt Albers and others, will also be on call.
If the Nats are eliminated Wednesday, it won’t be because they lacked enough capable arms. Of course, that hasn’t been their problem. Their .121 team batting average is what has their season, for the fourth time in six years, on the brink of what would be a bitterly disappointing ending.
If there’s a Game 5, it will be Strasburg’s, with all available hands remaining on deck.
This seems simple enough, I hope, because I’m explaining it to you in logical order. But much of the baseball world’s head is spinning at this moment because, at a news conference after the rainout, Manager Dusty Baker misspoke — twice. And it made the Nats look like they had no clue what they were doing.
“Who will you be starting tomorrow?” Baker was asked.
All day the baseball community had been buzzing about the Nats’ wonderful luck with the rainout. Suddenly, Strasburg and Gonzalez could be lined up for Games 4 and 5 — Strasburg had the third-lowest ERA in the National League this season, Gonzalez’s was fifth lowest.
That is not what Baker said.
“We’re going to go as planned with Tanner [Roark],” Baker said. “We decided to stay with Tanner because, number one, he was slated.”
This, of course, is irrelevant. If Joe Blow is “slated” and Walter Johnson becomes available, Joe Blow isn’t pitching.
“Didn’t work out for Stras for his bullpen day. We’re all creatures of habit. And Stras, he’s been under the weather, like a lot of my team,” Baker said.
Bullpen day? Creature of habit? Under the weather?
Game 4 is an elimination game. Strasburg is paid $175 million guaranteed. He’s an employee. Go through this again, please, Dusty?
Did Strasburg throw a bullpen session Tuesday, thinking he was pitching Thursday?
“Yes,” Baker said. “He had a bullpen today, which wouldn’t have allowed him to — because we had planned on playing his bullpen early [in the day]. So, you know, it’s fine. We have full confidence in Tanner.”
An entire room of reporters was too stunned to speak, or couldn’t grab the MLB mic fast enough. “That’s it?” Baker asked. “Oh, my God, thank you, guys.”
And he was gone. As I would have been. On a motorcycle if I had one.
The same thought jumped into everyone’s mind. What the hell happened?
How do you allow Strasburg to do his high-exertion throwing on Tuesday when there is an high probability that he’ll be pitching the next day? A properly run organization says, “Hold on, hoss. Let’s see if they postpone this baby. If we do play the game, then you can do your throwing later. But if we get a cancellation, you’re going to the bump tomorrow to save our season.”
The hoss says, “Sure, boss.”
Turns out, Baker had his days mixed up. Strasburg threw on Monday, not Tuesday.
“It was perfect,” Rizzo said of the rainout good fortune. “Except that Stras has really been sick. We need to give him time to get as close to 100 percent as he can be.”
What about the appearance, given to a healthy slice of the national MLB media, that the Nats are so disorganized that they’d let Strasburg throw a bullpen session that would knock him out of a start the next day?
“We’d be idiots if we let him throw [Tuesday],” Rizzo said. “Who would do that?”
Well, your manager said you did — twice. It’s in the MLB-issued transcript.
So, come in off the ledge, all the folks who thought that Strasburg was such a weird “creature of habit” that he’d throw a bullpen session on his own authority, or his own insistence, and mess up his team’s rotation.
What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate. And a failure to hit.
The failure to communicate just makes the Nats look like, once they get out on the big stage, they can’t get their ducks — or pitchers — in a row.
The failure to hit, however, could be about to end what might have been a wonderful season. The Nats have pitched wonderfully, especially Strasburg and Scherzer. Everyone would be talking about the Cubs’ team slump if the Nats’ team slump didn’t make them look like the 1927 Yankees.
The Nats have had their bumbles and stumbles in this playoff. But their task is simple: Try to score four runs Wednesday and four runs Thursday. Not 10. Bunt, if your name is Trea Turner. Hit to the opposite field, sometimes, just for the novelty of seeing a Nat try to use the whole field. Then see whether your pitchers can keep the Cubs locked in their current ice box.
The Nats could have caught a huge break with this rainout. But they didn’t because their Game 1 stalwart is under the weather. They have one day to get back on the right track. Or it’s hello offseason. And nobody will care whether the Nats can remember what day of the week it is.
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