Max Scherzer

Strasburg? Scherzer? Kershaw? Cubs still have the pitching to be unstoppable in October again

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USA TODAY

Strasburg? Scherzer? Kershaw? Cubs still have the pitching to be unstoppable in October again

Stephen Strasburg and Max Scherzer got all the hype leading into this National League Division Series – and took no-hitters into the sixth and seventh innings in Games 1 and 3 – and yet the Washington Nationals are still in crisis mode.    

The rain that poured onto Wrigley Field on Tuesday night could have changed everything, with Strasburg theoretically available to start a postponed elimination game on Wednesday afternoon on normal rest.

The Strasburg shutdown rules now apparently have an “under the weather” section, with manager Dusty Baker revealing the $175 million ace/former No. 1 overall pick will be saved for an if-necessary Game 5 on Thursday night at Nationals Park.

Washington will stick with Tanner Roark (13-11, 4.67 ERA) as planned. Whatever is going on behind the scenes with the Nationals, the Cubs get some of the blame, because their playoff rotation has been that good, with Cy Young Award winner Jake Arrieta still waiting to throw the first pitch in Game 4 at 3:08 p.m.

“Listen, they have spectacular pitching, the Nationals do, but our guys have matched them inning for inning,” manager Joe Maddon said. “That’s why we won. Their pitching’s been great, so has ours. You have to pitch better than really good pitching – great pitching – to win. And we have. It comes down to that. Our starters have permitted us to be in this position.”

That’s one win away from a third straight trip to the NL Championship Series where the talk will be about Clayton Kershaw and if the Cubs can match up with the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Every starter from the Opening Day rotation got injured at some point this season – remember Brett Anderson? – and the Cubs still headed into October with questions even after a 15-4 burst to close the regular season.

Kyle Hendricks doesn’t have the velocity or ego of a standard Game 1 starter. Jon Lester got shut down with left lat tightness/general shoulder fatigue in late August/early September. Jose Quintana didn’t have any playoff experience. Arrieta was recovering from a Grade 1 right hamstring strain.

[MORE: Respect this: How Anthony Rizzo owns October]     

Yet in a postseason environment where Chris Sale went 0-2 with an 8.38 ERA (one start) for the already-eliminated Boston Red Sox and Zack Greinke (7.27 ERA) didn’t win either of his two starts with the gone-fishin’ Arizona Diamondbacks, the Cubs have come up aces.

Combined, Hendricks, Lester and Quintana have allowed two runs (one earned) in 18.2 innings, limiting the Nationals to a .094 batting average and a .324 OPS. To put that in perspective, the Cubs have contained a Washington lineup that scored 800-plus runs to the point where its OPS is basically what Lester has done as an NL hitter (.318).         

“You win with pitching – pitching and defense,” Hendricks said. “If your starter can get you six, seven innings into a game, it takes a lot off your bullpen.

“In this day and age, we’re lucky to have the rotation we have and rely on that.”

Washington’s 1.96 rotation ERA ranks a distant second behind the Cubs (0.48) in a 10-team playoff field, another validation of the pitching infrastructure/game-planning system overseen by coaches Chris Bosio, Mike Borzello and Lester Strode and run prevention coordinator Tommy Hottovy.

“It’s really been interesting to watch all the runs being scored against some really good pitching,” Maddon said. “I don’t know the reason. There’s no good reason. But I do know how good the National pitching staff is versus our hitters. And then Washington has a very good offensive team, and our pitchers have done a nice job.

“It’s been the classic 60s-70s kind of series, as opposed to everybody’s looking for the offense these days.”

This is the seventh playoff round of the Maddon Era in Wrigleyville and the Cubs are coming off a championship run where they heard all about the legend of Madison Bumgarner and the even-year San Francisco Giants, Kershaw wanting to rewrite his legacy in October and The Klubot, Corey Kluber, waiting to start three World Series games for the Cleveland Indians.  

This rotation isn’t unbeatable – and the picture looks different if Arrieta suddenly hops off the mound in pain – but the Cubs are unflappable and that could make them unstoppable.   

“Each individual handles it differently, and you’ve got to figure out what works for you,” Lester said. “I just know from our clubhouse and being around these guys the last three years, you could see the nervousness and the anxiety in 2015. Last year was more kind of like: ‘We’re not going to let that happen again’ and more of a calmness in the clubhouse.

“The more you play in these situations, the more you can kind of separate all the other stuff that goes along with it, and just go and worry about what your job is that day.”

In the Wednesday schedule released to the media on Tuesday night, Strasburg was listed as TBD in the Wrigley Field interview room.

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.'"