Max Scherzer

Are the Nationals crazy for not starting Stephen Strasburg in Game 4?

Are the Nationals crazy for not starting Stephen Strasburg in Game 4?

The Nationals were given a gift by God (OK, maybe not God, but Mother Nature, at least) and are not planning to change a damn thing.

Tuesday's awkward NLDS Game 4 rainout shifts the series back a day, seemingly opening the door for Dusty Baker and Co. to roll with co-ace Stephen Strasburg on regular rest to help stave off elimination.

But the Nationals don't want to take the easy — and commonsensical — way out. 

In a decision that shocked the baseball world — simultaneously making Cubs fans giggle with glee and Nats fans roll their eyes — Baker announced immediately after the game was called that Tanner Roark would still pitch as planned for Wednesday's make-up.

It's a curious decision, to be sure. And it's one that will reflect poorly on Baker (who already may be on the hot seat) if the results do not go his way.

But we also don't know what's truly going on in his own clubhouse and he does. For that and his probable Hall of Fame 22-year career as a manager, Baker deserves the benefit of the doubt that he's making the decision that is best for his team to win their first-ever postseason series (since moving from Montreal, at least). 

But it's easy to see the outrage and hubbub. Strasburg is a legitimate Cy Young candidate and was one of the best pitchers in baseball in 2017. He got 17 outs before giving up a hit in Game 1 against the Cubs last week and still wound up with 10 strikeouts, even though "Bryzzo" finally got to him to lift the Cubs to victory.

During the 2017 season, Strasburg was 15-4 with a 2.52 ERA, 1.015 WHIP and 10.5 strikeouts per nine innings. 

Roark, meanwhile, was 13-11 with a 4.67 ERA, 1.335 WHIP and 8.2 K/9.

Baker reiterated several times in his post-rainout press conference Tuesday evening that he and the Nationals have plenty of confidence in Roark. The skipper claimed the Washington powers that be did not have a discussion about rolling with Strasburg Wednesday and Gio Gonzalez — another Cy Young candidate — in Game 5 should the series get that far.

There's also apparently no talk of Strasburg being available out of the bullpen.

"I don't know, man," Baker said. "I ain't even thinking about that, to tell you the truth. I'm thinking Tanner's going to do his thing."

The situation is even more convoluted because Strasburg first threw a bullpen Tuesday afternoon, before the game was rained out. Big-league pitchers are creatures of habit — as Baker acknowledged — and even if they aren't, it's not the best course of action, physically, for a pitcher to throw a bullpen one day and come back out and start a must-win game the next day. Pitchers typically throw a bullpen two or three days before their next start.

Another factor complicating things is Strasburg's health, which is not great. He's feeling under the weather, like most of the Nationals clubhouse, Baker said. 

"A lot of my team is under the weather with the change of weather and the air conditioning in the hotel and the air conditioning here," Baker said. "It's just this time of the year for mold around Chicago — I think it's mold. I mean, I have it, too."

(OK we need to stop the post here a bit. That's absolutely hilarious that mold was a topic of conversation ahead of what could be the final game of the NLDS. Totally did not see that coming.)

Regardless of Baker's reasoning, it's clear Strasburg isn't 100 percent health-wise and maybe that was a reason he wasn't able to throw a bullpen until Wednesday.

The Nationals can line their pitching up whatever way they want, but this series ultimately boils down to the Washington hitters, who are on the verge of having the lowest batting average ever by a team in a postseason series.

Strasburg and Scherzer combined for 12 no-hit innings in Games 1 and 3, yet the Cubs came back to win both games, in huge part because the Nationals did not have an earned run in either game.

In fact, the Nationals have scored in just three innings out of 27 in the NLDS, with five of their seven runs coming on that blowout eighth inning in Game 2 Saturday.

"We've got to score more runs," said Daniel Murphy, who tipped his hat to a Cubs pitching staff that has held him to a 1-for-11 batting line in the NLDS with a walk. "The pitching has been unbelievable for us — staring and relieving. 

"Offensively, we've got to score. That's where it starts and that doesn't fall on the manager. He's got us completely prepared for every ballgame. We have to go out there and see if we can put up some crooked numbers."

The rainout may have helped give the Nationals hitters one more day to refresh and reset, even if the pitching rotation doesn't change.

But it's also worth noting that Roark is no slouch. The University of Illinois product finished 10th in NL Cy Young voting in 2016 when he went 16-10 with a 2.83 ERA in 210 innings. He's also 3-1 at Wrigley Field with a 3.24 ERA and 1.32 WHIP, often pitching in front of a large contingent of friends and family in the stands.

So it wouldn't be all that shocking to see Roark go out and pitch well enough to give his team a chance to keep the series alive for Strasburg in Game 5, especially if the Bryce Harper-led offense awakens from its slumber.

This is postseason baseball. Roark's numbers across six months hardly matter if he's locked in and on his game in the incredibly-small sample size of one afternoon at Wrigley Field. This isn't some Triple-A pitcher getting the ball for Washington.

Yes, you'd rather have a guy like Strasburg throwing than Roark in what is essentially a one-game playoff if you're the Nationals, but if Strasburg isn't fully healthy anyways, it may be something of a moot point.

Or this could be some misdirection on the part of Baker and the Nationals and maybe Roark is on a really short leash and Strasburg or Gonzalez appear out of the bullpen.

Either way, if the Cubs emerge the victors from this NLDS, it won't be because of Baker's starting pitching decision in Game 4. It'll be because the Nationals didn't hit enough to beat the Cubs pitching.

Win it for Schwarbs? 'This is what we're supposed to do'

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AP

Win it for Schwarbs? 'This is what we're supposed to do'

Kyle Schwarber saw the media contingent around him growing larger and put a quick stop to the questions.

He knew he messed up when he dropped Daniel Murphy's fly ball in the sixth inning and promptly kicked it for back-to-back errors that cost the Cubs a run.

And he wanted to own it. No excuses.

"I should've caught that ball and I didn't and that led to a run," Schwarber said, looking reporters in the eye and staring directly into cameras. "I'm gonna take full responsbility on that, before anyone else asks me: It's my fault. The ball shoulda been caught and I didn't catch it."

But that's not how the story ended for Schwarber and the Cubs.

They clawed back the next inning, when Albert Almora Jr. pinch-hit for Schwarber and drove in Ben Zobrist to tie the game.

Then Anthony Rizzo played the hero and gave a "Gladiator"-esque performance afterwards.

"For us to be able to come back like that, that just speaks to the volumes of this team," Schwarber said. "We're not gonna ever give up. Everyone has each other's backs, and that's the most important part — they picked me up today. 

"When we were going through the line, I was giving everybody hugs because they picked me up right there and it was big."

Schwarber admitted he said "a lot of bad words" after Ryan Zimmerman doubled home Murphy in that sixth inning. But he said his teammates were relentless in their support, from Jason Heyward and Jon Jay in the outfield during the Cubs pitching change right after the dropped ball to the guys in the dugout refusing to let one of the most popular players in the clubhouse drop his head.

Not that he wanted to.

No, Schwarber isn't built like that. 

In the seventh inning, following Zobrist's one-out double to break up Max Scherzer's no-hitter, Schwarber was standing on deck and watched Nationals manager Dusty Baker come out to the mound.

Baker ultimately wound up yanking Scherzer to bring in Sammy Solis, a southpaw.

That meant the end of Schwarber's night, since he rarely gets to hit against lefties, especially that late in a game.

Almora was the call, which didn't disappoint Schwarber, but it did make him feel something as he hoped for a shot at redemption.

"I was just more pissed off because I just dropped the ball," Schwarber said. "I saw Scherzer trying to stay in there and I was like, 'Come on, stay in there.' I knew as soon as that lefty was coming in, Albert was gonna be pinch-hitting.

"I wasn't frustrated by that at all. I was more frustrated by what just happened. I saw Scherzer trying to talk into it, but it didn't work out. But hey, it worked out for us, that's for dang sure."

Schwarber's right, because Almora had his back.

"When I was pinch-hit for him, that was in the front of my head," Almora said. "I was thinking I wanna help him and Quintana, who did an unbeilevable job. I was just happy I did my job."

Almora said he didn't get a chance to speak to Schwarber before he pinch-hit for him in that crucial spot.

But you better believe the two talked after.

"I don't think he let me take two steps down the stairs before he grabbed me and gave me a huge hug and thanked me," Almora said. 

"I said, 'No way, this is OUR game. We're family. This is what we're supposed to do.'"

Game 3 swung on managers lifting their starting pitchers: Why did Maddon, Baker do what they did?

Game 3 swung on managers lifting their starting pitchers: Why did Maddon, Baker do what they did?

Max Scherzer was dealing. Jose Quintana, also dealing. It was a classic, textbook pitcher’s duel Monday at Wrigley Field. Until Joe Maddon and Dusty Baker put a stop to all that.

It wasn’t just managerial decisions that put an end to the epic pitching battle in the Cubs’ 2-1 Game 3 win that put them on the cusp of advancing to the NLCS for the third straight postseason. But both managers seemed determined, even in their postgame comments, on sticking to their predetermined scripts, making their roles in ending each All-Star pitcher’s day all the larger.

Maddon was showered with boos when he went out to remove Quintana after Kyle Schwarber’s fielding disaster in the sixth inning. The Nationals took a 1-0 lead on the first batter Pedro Strop faced, a Ryan Zimmerman hit that scored Daniel Murphy, who reached on Schwarber’s errors.

Scherzer wasn’t even all the way to his promised 100 pitches when Baker lifted his ace. The Cubs tied the game at 1 on the next hitter, Albert Almora Jr.’s clutch hit driving in Ben Zobrist and tying the game. Almora pinch hit for the aforementioned Schwarber in that moment.

The game swung dramatically immediately following both of those exits because those pitchers were nearly unhittable. They gave up a combined three hits and just one earned run. That’s it.

So why’d the managers do what they did?

Scherzer’s exit was easier to explain, given that he was coming off that much ballyhooed hamstring tweak that made his performance a mystery before Game 3 started. It turns out he had no-hit stuff until the last batter he faced. Scherzer promised he’d be well enough to throw 100 pitches. He threw 98.

“It was very difficult, but you know, we thought Max had had enough, especially coming off the injury, and you know, Schwarber is a dangerous man,” Baker said. “I probably couldn't live with myself if Schwarber had hit one out of the park on you, which he's dangerous to do that. So we thought we made the right decision. You know, he got a changeup up to Almora and you know, that was, you know — they continue to get the clutch hits.

“He was at a hundred pitches, and he had not been that far in a while. Like I said, Schwarber is a dangerous hitter. You know, if he made the pitch, then you know, we wouldn't be talking about it. But this — you know, just sometimes, you can't throw the ball where you want to throw it.”

The removal of Quintana was more difficult to explain away, and the fans in the stands booed Maddon and shouted audible “nos” when the skipper emerged from the home dugout. Quintana was making his first career postseason start, and Maddon — who even through three immensely successful seasons has earned legions of second-guessers — wanted to stick to his predetermined plan.

“I had it set up, he was not going to pitch to Zimmerman in that inning,” Maddon said. “Just happened that was a two-out error that had me bring Strop into the game. That was set up before the inning began. I really try to stay with the script that we present before the inning begins. I really felt strongly about Strop on Zimmerman. The reason is Strop has a much better chance for a punch-out as opposed to Quintana — and you don't want the ball to be moved, and he moved the baseball.”

While baseball folks are usually loath to describe a change in their mental approach, Anthony Rizzo — who had the game-winning hit in the bottom of the eighth, an inning after Scherzer was removed — admitted that everything changed once Scherzer left. The reigning Cy Young winner was untouchable into the seventh, and Rizzo said that getting him out was incredibly large for the Cubs in their comeback effort.

“He's Max Scherzer for a reason. He was dominating us, there's no two ways about it,” Rizzo said. “And Zo with that hit, the double, to get him out of the game was big for us. You just feel energy when you get guys like him out of the game. They have a really good bullpen, but when you get their ace, their guy out of the game, then obviously we have to score. But a lot of momentum when we got that one run.”

And count Zobrist, who picked up the Cubs' first hit, as one who would've kept Scherzer in the game.

"I wouldn’t have taken him the way he was pitching," Zobrist said. "He was very sharp, especially considering having not kind of having been on his normal five-day routine there. Hamstring, whatever, he didn’t show any effects of that today and he was very sharp. I just thought it was tough to take advantage of mistakes, he didn’t make a lot of them. Fortunately, with nobody on he gave me a heater I could handle and drive a little bit. In that moment, it’s just, you’ve got to believe in your guy that’s gotten you six innings the way they did. Fortunately, we were able to take advantage of it in that moment."

Managerial decisions are analyzed to death this time of year. Just look at the other side of this postseason bracket, where Yankees manager Joe Girardi has already been eviscerated for deciding not to challenge a hit by pitch. Astros manager A.J. Hinch was momentarily the subject of much online scrutiny Monday, when he put Justin Verlander into the game, only for the veteran to immediately surrender a home run.

Maddon himself is no stranger to all this noise, endlessly second-guessed for his pitching choices even after his team won the World Series. He heard that noise again, raining down on him as he removed Quintana on Monday.

The way things played out, however, Baker’s decision to lift Scherzer ended up as the more meaningful one. And, in part because of that move, the Cubs are now a game away from ending the Nationals’ season.