Gio Gonzalez

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.

The Nationals NLDS rotation spells good news for the Cubs

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USA TODAY

The Nationals NLDS rotation spells good news for the Cubs

Barring anything absolutely nuts or Bumgarnerian, the Cubs will only face Max Scherzer once in the National League Division Series, even if it stretches to five games.

There's also the possibility the Cubs don't even have to face Scherzer at all.

Dusty Baker announced the Washington Nationals' Game 1 starter only Thursday morning, but MASN's Mark Zuckerman is hearing from sources Gio Gonzalez will get the ball in Game 2, pushing Scherzer back to Chicago for Game 3 Monday, at the earliest.

Scherzer "tweaked" his hamstring in his final start of the regular season last weekend and that issue will keep him out of the first two games in D.C. this weekend.

He was supposed to throw a bullpen Wednesday, but that was pushed back to Thursday. Baker explained why:

"We didn't want him to test it [Wednesday]," Baker said. "He threw some flat ground, but every day is important. When you have a nagging injury, every day is important for our trainers to evaluate it, put hands on him, and see if he's still sore or if he's feeling great."

[RELATED — Breaking down Cubs' NLDS rotation decisions]

Based on the typical routine of starting pitchers, they rarely throw a full bullpen only two days before they are to appear in a game. Which means if Scherzer is first getting on a mound Thursday to test his hamstring, it's hard to see him getting the ball Saturday evening in Game 2, which lends credence to what Zuckerman's sources are telling him.

If Scherzer cannot go in Game 2, that would almost assuredly take him out of the running to throw at all in a winner-take-all Game 5 if the series gets that far. Doubt the Nationals would throw a less-than-healthy Scherzer on Monday and then have him start or relieve on a sub-100 percent hamstring Thursday with just two days of rest in between.

With the scheduled off-days Sunday and Wednesday, the starter for Games 1 and 2 for both teams would be fresh and on normal rest to throw in a Game 5.

"We realize that if he pitched Game 2, he could probably pitch Game 5 if necessary," Baker said. "We realize that, but is that worth, you know, taking a chance, and if you get past the first round and then are you jeopardizing the second round? So you have to kind of weigh both. But you know, the health of Max, I think, is number one."

We've already seen the Nationals prioritize the long-term health ramifications of their players over winning when they shut down Strasburg in the 2012 postseason. But then again, that move hasn't worked out so well for the franchise, so maybe the added pressure has changed things in our nation's capital?

Scherzer is the frontrunner (in my eyes, at least) for the NL Cy Young Award, as he went 16-6 with a 2.51 ERA in 31 starts. He led the league in strikeouts (268), WHIP (0.902), hits per nine innings (5.7) and complete games (2). 

[PODCAST: NLDS X-factors]

To be sure: Strasburg, Gonzalez and Illinois native Tanner Roark are no slouches. 

Strasburg has been lights-out since the All-Star Break, going 6-1 with a 0.86 ERA, 0.814 WHIP and 10.9 strikeouts per nine innings. But he also only pitched 62.2 innings due to an elbow issue that kept him sidelined from July 23 to Aug. 19.

Gonzalez actually led the Nats staff in innings (201) and games started (32) while pitching the second-best year of his career with a 15-9 record and 2.96 ERA.

Roark  a Wilmington, Illinois native who played his college ball at the University of Illinois — had a 4.67 ERA and 1.335 WHIP this season, but last year, he had a 2.83 ERA, 1.17 WHIP and won 16 games. But he's alowed 14 baserunners in 7 career postseason innings between 2014 and last fall.

No matter what way you look at it, the Cubs would catch a serious break by not having to face Scherzer twice.

Whenever Scherzer does throw in this series — if at all — the Cubs and Joe Maddon will have some serious lineup questions. The veteran right-hander is absolutely, insanely dominant against right-handed hitters, holding them to a microscopic .136 average and .425 OPS. Lefties, meanwhile, are hitting .215 with a .692 OPS and have hit 16 homers off Scherzer compared to only 6 llongballs from righties.

That means Maddon has two choices: 1) write out a lineup with Alex Avila catching over Willson Contreras and only one of Javy Baez or Addison Russell playing shortstop with switch-hitters Ian Happ or Ben Zobrist or the left-handed-hitting Tommy La Stella playing second base or 2) Keep Contreras, Baez and Russell all in the lineup vs. Scherzer and be forced to sacrifice offense for defense.

We'll see what way the Cubs opt to play it when the time comes, but it's really hard to envision Contreras, Russell or Baez ever out of the starting lineup for any game this October if they're all fully healthy.

Now, at least, it appears Maddon only has to make those tough decisions for one game.

Cubs vs. Nationals: Joe Maddon’s ‘Godfather’ urban legend about Mike Rizzo

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USA TODAY

Cubs vs. Nationals: Joe Maddon’s ‘Godfather’ urban legend about Mike Rizzo

Washington Nationals baseball boss Mike Rizzo grew up on Waveland Avenue and built a perennial playoff team in that image through old-school scouting more than sabermetrics, valuing guts and competitive nature and how those strong personalities would work together within a clubhouse.   

This is the family business. The son of a longtime scout, Rizzo keeps his father, Phil, around as a senior advisor who still takes in games at Wrigley Field, tracks potential postseason opponents and watches prospects in the Arizona Fall League.

Cubs manager Joe Maddon wasn’t surprised when Rizzo made the Oakland A’s and Minnesota Twins offers they couldn’t refuse, completely rebuilding the shaky Washington bullpen on the fly this summer by acquiring Sean Doolittle, Ryan Madson and Brandon Kintzler.

“Rizz and I go way back,” said Maddon, who managed the Class-A infielder in 1982 in Salem, Oregon, where the California Angels had a branch of their farm system. “There was also a really good urban legend about a player that was no longer heard from after Rizzo had been released in spring training. The guy that was chosen in front of him was no longer to be found right after that.”

That Godfather-style line drew laughter from the reporters gathered in the Wrigley Field interview room before Wednesday’s workout, Maddon just warming up for the national media he will love to see this October.

“So the next day, Rizzo was reinstated,” Maddon said. “So we’re trying to find him. If anybody knows where Dave Govea is living right now, please let us know.”

After years of shrewd draft picks (Stephen Strasburg, Bryce Harper, Anthony Rendon), trades (Gio Gonzalez, Trea Turner) and free-agent signings (Max Scherzer, Daniel Murphy), Rizzo’s bullpen moves fixed the one glaring weakness for a 97-win team that heads into a best-of-five National League Division Series against the defending World Series champs on Friday night at Nationals Park.

[MORE: Jon Lester won't concede anything: 'We should win the World Series'  

Another lasting image of Rizzo, a University of Illinois graduate who signed future Hall of Famer Frank Thomas for the White Sox:

“Rizz started a tremendous fight that we had vs. the Bend, Oregon Phillies,” Maddon said. “A play at the plate ended up against the backstop, Rizz was right in the middle of the whole thing. That’s who he was. He was a gritty player.”