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Stephen Strasburg and Nationals commit biggest error of the season

Stephen Strasburg limbers up in the outfield Tuesday; the Nationals later said he was too sick to pitch Wednesday. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

Let’s review what we know for certain: The Washington Nationals face elimination Wednesday afternoon at Wrigley Field. They employ a pitcher who, at the moment, is throwing as well as — and likely better than — anyone in the game. He is on regular rest. He will not pitch.

Keep going: The Nationals knew Manager Dusty Baker would be sitting in front of the media after Tuesday’s National League Division Series game was postponed to announce that Tanner Roark, not Stephen Strasburg, would get the ball with the season in the balance. And they either did not properly prepare Baker for the importance of the message he was about to deliver, or Baker did not understand its importance, or both.

Now, just me: I’m betting on both.

This is a mess. It is viewed that way across baseball, and it is viewed that way internally within the Nationals. They are, by now, a classic one-step-forward-two-steps-back organization, with responsibility in nearly every department of the club.

Get the caveats out of the way: The Nationals could beat the Chicago Cubs on Wednesday afternoon to force a fifth game Thursday in Washington. They could receive the performance of Strasburg’s life — or not — and still beat the Cubs one more time to move on to the National League Championship Series for the first time in club history.

That’s not an insane scenario. As first baseman Ryan Zimmerman said: “We’ve won two games in a row before. It’s not a record.”

But even if the Nats advance, it’s hard to imagine the events of Tuesday — a hum-drum, stare-at-your-phone-and-wait-for-official-word kinda day — becoming a funny footnote, even in a deep postseason run. The characters who have skin in this game, whose reputations could be — or already have been — damaged include Strasburg, Baker, and the Nationals organization as a whole.

Thomas Boswell: What we have here (for the Nats) is a failure to communicate

Start with Strasburg. The Nationals want you to know that he is sick. They want you to know that he is so sick they feel that Roark — with a bullpen that would include Gio Gonzalez on short rest and Max Scherzer for an inning — gives them a better chance to beat the Cubs in Game 4. Strasburg, of course, finished fourth in all of baseball in ERA (2.52). Roark tied for 47th (4.67).

“He’s feeling under the weather,” Baker said in front of that news conference, which included not just the Washington media — which is accustomed to this dysfunction — but the cameras of ESPN and the MLB Network, Chicago scribes who have dealt with Baker for years, and national writers with sources across decades and teams.

Let’s say Strasburg is, actually, very, very sick. Work with me here.

Why, then, was he even at the ballpark Tuesday? Why would he play catch, as he did in the outfield grass as other Nats warmed up? Why would he be at Wrigley in particular? It might be known as the “Friendly Confines,” but it’s hell on visiting teams, with the tiny visitors’ clubhouse forcing players and coaches and team officials to step over and around each other just to shower or dress or grab a bite to eat.

That’s no place for a very ill player, unless you want more very ill players.

About being sick and playing: This is the town of Michael Jordan, so it’s pertinent. Does anyone with a stake in the Nationals — player, coach, exec or fan — think Scherzer would delay a season-saving start because of illness? Mike Rizzo, the Nationals’ general manager, has said out loud that it’s the time of year for heroes.

“Be John Wayne,” Rizzo said Sunday at Wrigley, in between Games 2 and 3.

Strasburg, we have long known, is not John Wayne. But this episode only exacerbates his reputation as a finicky diva who must have every last detail in perfect position in order to pitch well. This is a time of year when management and teammates want you to say, “You couldn’t drag me off that mound.” Strasburg, it appears, said he would give the Nats what he had — and they looked at each other, considered the character they’re dealing with, and said, “No thanks.”

The Nationals would have liked to have Stephen Strasburg start Game 4. He will not.

“This is simple,” ESPN analyst and former big-league first baseman Mark Teixeira said. “Unless this guy is in the hospital and getting fluids and can’t even go to the ballpark, he’s gotta be on the mound.”

During ESPN’s “Baseball Tonight,” David Ross, Teixeira’s partner as an analyst (and a former Cub), said: “If I’m his teammate, and I walk in the clubhouse the next day, I can’t make eye contact with this dude. This is as bad as it gets for me as a teammate.”

So whatever Strasburg says now, his rep is in flames.

Maybe, you say, people such as Teixeira and Ross don’t have all the information. About that:

If Strasburg is truly sick and if he actually wanted to pitch, let's make sure the public gets some details about this illness. What was his temperature? What are his symptoms? How are the Nationals treating him? He threw a bullpen session Monday, was in the dugout for Game 3 that night, returned to the ballpark Tuesday. It's nothing for a pitcher — never mind a pitcher who wouldn't pitch Monday or Tuesday — to remain back at the hotel to recuperate. Why wasn't Strasburg, so ill he can't pitch, recuperating?

That leads to another possibility: Strasburg had been preparing all along to take the ball in a Game 5 on Thursday. When the weather altered the schedule for all of baseball, Strasburg declined to alter his own schedule. USA Today’s Bob Nightengale reported that Strasburg refused to pitch Wednesday. The Nationals deny that report.

But what if they're covering for him? If Nats officials say, "Yep, we wanted him to do it, and badly, but he wouldn't," then they're admitting they invested seven years and $175 million in someone who can't or won't meet a low bar for competitiveness. Present him as can't-get-out-of-bed sick (even though, clearly, he was out of bed), and it not only saves some face for Strasburg,but doesn't bring up the big-picture questions for the organization: You hitched you trailer to this guy?

This isn’t a full-scale disaster, not at this very minute, because the Nationals’ season isn’t over. Not yet. But what we were reminded of on a day that should have been dedicated to grabbing some dinner and watching a movie is that the Nationals have communication issues, both internal and external. By this point, they almost seem to be woven into the fiber of the organization.

During the regular season, it’s not unusual for Baker to sit in front of the local media and have little or no information on pitchers: their health, their availability, when they threw a bullpen, how they’re progressing. This, we are told, is the job of pitching coach Mike Maddux. Fine.

But Tuesday wasn’t the regular season. Tuesday was about saving the season. If Baker was going to be the one entrusted with relaying the information about how the Nationals intended to save that season, the club had to sit him down and say: “Here are the talking points. Make sure you know them.” Instead, Baker sat behind a microphone and provided the public with the wrong day of Strasburg’s bullpen.

Since 2012, the Nationals have won four division titles and the second-most regular-season games in baseball. Clearly, they are doing many things correctly. But a truly great franchise regularly looks at every aspect of the operation — from players to publicity — and wonders, “What can we do better?” The answer, after Tuesday, is a lot.

Read more baseball coverage:

Nationals will stick with Roark for Wednesday’s game

Harper to hit third, Werth second for crucial Game 4

Cubs’ Rizzo was so insulted by Nats he hit a pop fly