Stephen Strasburg

Now who’s soft? Stephen Strasburg shoves Cubs to brink of elimination


Now who’s soft? Stephen Strasburg shoves Cubs to brink of elimination

A system-wide failure led to Stephen Strasburg’s manhood getting called into question and forced Mike Rizzo and Dusty Baker into damage-control mode, making the entire Washington Nationals operation come across as unprepared, tone-deaf and thin-skinned.   

Whatever communication issues between a $175 million pitcher and his bosses and pressure points within the organization led to a totally unnecessary, completely avoidable situation, the on-field Nationals ran with military precision between 3:10 and 7:07 p.m. on Wednesday in this National League Division Series.  

Out of that sideshow came the main event: An absolutely dominant performance that should kill the narrative that Strasburg is soft, because he just shoved the Cubs to the brink of elimination. This could be the last scene for the defending World Series champs in a half-empty Wrigley Field, the Nationals lining up for high-fives after a 5-0 win.    

After all the drama within the last 24 hours, did you feel like you had something to prove?

“Not to you guys, no,” Strasburg said in the interview room. “No, you guys create the drama. (But) I have faith in every other guy in this clubhouse and I know the coaching staff feels the same.

“So we’re in it together, and when one guy goes down, you have to trust that the other guy is going to pick up the slack.”

After the mixed messages coming out of Tuesday’s rainout – Baker initially signaled Tanner Roark would remain the Game 4 starter as planned and partially blamed Strasburg’s illness on the mold in Chicago – it would be difficult to engineer a tougher environment for hitters.

It was a bone-chilling 59 degrees at first pitch, with rain misting sideways across the old stadium, the winds whipping in from center field at 16 mph and Strasburg showing no signs of feeling under the weather.  

Strasburg unleashed a 95 mph first pitch to leadoff guy Jon Jay for a called strike, unloaded 106 pitches across seven scoreless innings and forced 22 swings-and-misses, including 15 on his changeup.

“You just kind of figure they’re going to go with him,” said outfielder Jason Heyward, who has great career numbers against Strasburg and got plugged into the lineup when the Nationals made the IV-fueled switch late that morning.  

“We don’t care about the stories, whatever. We all know what we would have done in that situation if we got asked to have a part in the game. Everybody in here’s going to say, ‘Yeah.’ And that’s what he did.”

A 24-hour news cycle is an eternity during the playoffs, when so much momentum shifts from one moment to the next. Joe Maddon looked like a genius for deploying $155 million lefty reliever Jon Lester against the heart of the Washington lineup and getting 10 outs in a row. And then Maddon seemed to get a little cute when he pulled Carl Edwards Jr. with the bases loaded and a 1-0 count in the eighth inning. What was left of a crowd of 42,264 went silent once Michael A. Taylor’s grand slam off All-Star closer Wade Davis landed in the right-field basket.    

“I had to prepare for my job today,” Lester said, “so I don’t really care what Strasburg had to do, or what he didn’t do, and what Dusty did or didn’t do, or whoever’s under the weather. We’ve got to worry about our jobs. I don’t pay attention to the other side.”

Strasburg won’t be much help after striking out 12 of the 25 hitters he faced and allowing only three hits and two walks, but Washington can flip the script again on Thursday night at Nationals Park.  

This is still largely the same group of Cubs players who beat the Pittsburgh Pirates at a blacked-out PNC Park in the sudden-death 2015 NL wild-card game and dug out of a 3-1 hole against the Cleveland Indians in last year’s World Series. The Nationals also have a lot of muscle memory, from never having made it out of the divisional round after winning 98, 96 and 95 games in 2012, 2014 and 2016.

“I don’t really think anybody likes having their back against the wall, but I think that’s just our personality in this clubhouse,” Lester said. “We got a bunch of grinders. Even the guys that you consider superstars are still grinders. They grind out at-bats, grind out pitches.

“Nobody ever likes to have their back against the wall. Nobody ever likes playing Game 5s or Game 7s, but we’re in that situation. We’re going to show up tomorrow. We’re going to be prepared. And at the end of the day, that’s all you can really do.”

After four games like this in a series that has absolutely lived up to the hype, who wouldn’t want to see a fifth? Baker wouldn’t immediately say if Roark or Gio Gonzalez would get the ball first, but Max Scherzer should be available out of the bullpen. Let’s get weird.

“We’ll have fun,” Heyward said. “That’s what all these games are. Honestly, it’s fun.”

Swing and a mist: Anthony Rizzo perfectly describes what it's like to hit against Stephen Strasburg

Swing and a mist: Anthony Rizzo perfectly describes what it's like to hit against Stephen Strasburg

Anthony Rizzo's been the king of money quotes so far this postseason.

The face of the franchise can't get no respect, but he certainly has some for Nationals pitcher Stephen Strasburg.

The Washington co-ace absolutely shut down Rizzo and the Cubs offense in Game 4 Wednesday, striking out 12 batters in 7 shutout frames on a windy, wet, frigid night at Wrigley Field.

That ran Strasburg's 2017 NLDS totals to 22 strikeouts in 14 innings, allowing six hits with nary an earned run (both runs in Game 1 were unearned). He also became the third pitcher ever to rack up multiple 10-K appearances in the same Division Series:

That led to an epic response from Rizzo, when a reporter asked this:

"How hard is it to hit Strasburg's change when it's working like that?"

Rizzo paused for a second, collecting his thoughts.

"Probably like you going over to Sluggers and trying to hit," Rizzo smirked. "He throws that fastball and it rises and then that changeup just falls off the planet. It's basically anybody who goes to a batting cage and doesn't know how to hit, that's what it feels like."

Mic. Drop.

Here's how good Strasburg was Wednesday night (courtesy of Baseball Savant):

He generated 22 swings and misses on 106 pitches. Of those, 15 swings and misses came on the 32 changeups he threw.

Strasburg averaged 95.4 mph with his four-seam fastball on the evening, racking up 13 called strikes with that pitch, forcing the Cubs to be aggressive on it.

By comparison, his changeup was coming in at 88.6 mph on average and like Rizzo said, fell off the face of the Earth.

So basically this was Strasburg on a night where gametime temperatures never climbed above 60 degrees and the wind was howling in on a consistent basis:

In the span of just a couple hours, Strasburg went from being called "soft" and having his manhood questioned by Nationals fans in DC to entering the conversation as another Mr. October. 

Strasburg may only have a 1-2 record in his three career postseason starts, but he's surrendered just one earned run in 19 innings (0.47 ERA) with 24 strikeouts and a 0.95 WHIP.

Mold news and the 5 biggest things from Cubs-Nationals Game 4

Mold news and the 5 biggest things from Cubs-Nationals Game 4

Ron Swanson couldn't follow in Bill Murray's footsteps.

Chicago native and noted Cubs fan Nick Offerman sang the Seventh Inning Stretch with actress Elisabeth Moss, but the "Parks and Rec" fan favorite didn't generate the same buzz with the Cubs' bats.

Stephen Strasburg was just too damn good Wednesday night as he and the Nationals got the last laugh on the whole "mold" joke, making the Cubs look more like the team that was feeling "under the weather" on the losing end of a 5-0 Game 4 affair.

Mold News

However you want to slice it, the whole "mold" storyline was thrown out the window...oh, about the third inning or so.

Strasburg demanded the ball in Game 4 and went out and "put his balls on the line," throwing an absolute gem of a game. He struck out the side in both the third and fourth innings, tallying 12 Ks in 7 innings and generating a ton of swings and misses on his wicked changeup:

This was an opportunity for a statement game from Strasburg and he answered the call, silencing any Nationals fans who questioned his toughness.

His 12 strikeouts broke his own Nationals postseason record that he set in Game 1 when he struck out 10 Cubs hitters. So that makes 22 Ks for Strasburg — against only six hits — in 14 innings in the series. Talk about dominance.

Guess he truly was feeling better, so whatever antibiotics he was on certainly did the trick.

Weather, man

Who knows what would've happened in Tuesday's game had it not been rained out, but the only thing we can say for certain: Strasburg was not going to be the starting pitcher Tuesday under any circumstance.

Maybe Tanner Roark would've had just as neutralizing of an effect on Cubs' bats, but yeah, it doesn't seem too likely he would've been as dominant as Strasburg was Wednesday afternoon/evening.

And now the Cubs have to go back to D.C. without the benefit of a travel day or day off to rest and try to come out on the positive end of a winner-take-all Game 5 with a raucous Washington crowd.

Seems pretty clear the weather gave the Nats at least a partial advantage, though Cubs fans can't really complain about rain affecting the momentum of a contest after Game 7 last year, right? Right?

Don't forget about Trea

Trea Turner finally got on base and immediately made it hurt for the Cubs.

The young shortstop lined a one-out double to the left-field corner off Jake Arrieta in the third inning and later came around to score the only run Arrieta gave up in the game. Turner started the NLDS 0-for-13 before that double. 

It's not like the Nationals lit the world on fire offensively (they finished with only four hits), but they took advantage of nine walks and had just one big swing of the bat.

Where is the defense?

The Cubs' defense once again failed the Cubs, as the only run of the game through seven innings was unearned by virtue of Addison Russell's bobble on Ryan Zimmerman's chopper. (Yes, Zimmerman once again took advantage of the Cubs' shoddy fielding at Wrigley.)

It's hard to blame Russell too much, given he was charging hard on a slick infield and it would've been a rather tough play either way.

But that makes five errors for the Cubs in the two games at Wrigley Field and once again called into question: Where is that elite defense the team rode to a championship in 2016?

All hands on deck

Arrieta was forced out of the game after only four innings and Joe Maddon's first choice out of the bullpen was...Jon Lester?

Yep, the veteran southpaw came on to throw 3.2 innings as Maddon went full Game 7 mode, bypassing the likes of Mike Montgomery, Brian Duensing and John Lackey for those middle innings.

Lester performed brilliantly (even picking a guy off first base!) before departing after a two-out single to Daniel Murphy, giving way to Carl Edwards Jr. The Cubs young setup man walked the first two batters he faced, loading the bases and forcing Maddon to bring in Wade Davis.

That's when disaster struck. Davis served up a backbreaking grand slam to Michael A. Taylor, who hit one into the teeth of 16 mph winds, dropping one into the right-field basket and ensuring there would be another day to this series. It was the first homer Davis has surrendered in 25 postseason outings spanning 29.1 innings.

Maddon clearly was going all-out to win Game 4, not wanting to go back to D.C. Thursday and face a combination of Gio Gonzalez, Max Scherzer and a rested Nats bullpen on their home turf in a winner-take-all game. The thinking here makes sense: win Game 4 and there is no Game 5.

The problem is, that's exactly what Maddon and Co. will have to do and now Lester probably won't be available out of the 'pen for a Game 5 after throwing 55 pitches Wednesday.