Cubs

IVs and Hawaiian dudes: Stephen Strasburg is ready to pitch Game 4 for Nationals

IVs and Hawaiian dudes: Stephen Strasburg is ready to pitch Game 4 for Nationals

The latest twist in the Nats’ version of “Who’s On First” simply boils down to Stephen Strasburg feeling better on Wednesday.

The last-minute decision to start Strasburg in Game 4 of the National League Division Series has nothing to do with peer pressure from his teammates or the media. The All-Star pitcher’s flu-like symptoms improved enough overnight for him to inform the team he’s ready to go.

At least that’s the Nationals’ version in a saga that has seen the All-Star pitcher’s courage questioned and the team’s ability to put out a clear and concise message mocked for an entire news cycle.

Less than 24 hours after manager Dusty Baker said Tanner Roark would start the potential elimination game, the Nationals announced that a suddenly healthy Strasburg would go instead. The team’s message was further muddled early Wednesday when Nats general manager Mike Rizzo reaffirmed that Roark would start on a DC radio station.

In the end, all that matters to the Nats after this distracting much-ado-about-nothing cycle is that Strasburg will face the Cubs at Wrigley Field.

“Many statements that have been made about this subject have been inaccurate,” Rizzo said. “If you're alluding to the fact that -- did the media pressure him into starting this? I don't think Stephen Strasburg cares about what the media thinks about him or says about him. He wanted the ball in this game because he wants to win this game and he thinks he's our best option. And he's an ultra-competitor and he feels this gives us a chance to win.”

If you’re all confused by this you’re not alone.

Though Cubs manager Joe Maddon had an inkling that Strasburg would start, Baker said Wednesday afternoon that when he left Wrigley on Tuesday night he was under the impression Roark was his guy.

The decision to stick with Roark after Tuesday’s rainout stunned the baseball world as everyone figured the Nationals would take advantage of the weather to use Strasburg, who took a no-hitter into the sixth inning in Game 1 of the series. When they stayed with Roark because Strasburg -- who threw a bullpen Monday and played catch on Tuesday -- was ill, Baker, Rizzo and the pitcher were all questioned heavily.

But Strasburg apparently responded well enough to overnight treatment, including IVs, to call pitching coach Mike Maddux on Wednesday and tell him he wanted to pitch. Maddux said the coaching staff would convene once they arrived at Wrigley.

Two hours later, word leaked out Strasburg would pitch adding another layer of confusion. Much to his surprise, Baker said Strasburg told him he wants the ball.

“I was planning on Tanner pitching,” Baker said. “Things are subject to change and … maybe the rain helped him and helped us, like I hoped that it would. I said my prayers and said, ‘Hey, man, let the rain try to help us.’

“Hawaiian buddies of mine … were saying, ‘Hey, sometimes, that's a blessing from the sky.’ They call it mana. I believe in that.”

Baker believes Strasburg is ready for a normal start. The turn comes on regular rest after Strasburg pitched Game 1 on Friday in Washington. Strasburg pitched 5 2/3 no-hit innings in the opener but was undone when the Cubs took advantage of an Anthony Rendon error in the sixth inning and went on to a 3-0 win. Strasburg allowed two unearned runs and three hits while striking out 10 and walking one in seven innings.

Baker reiterated Rizzo’s stance that Strasburg wasn’t pressured into the decision by the team, its players or the media.

“We didn't put that pressure on him, and I don't think that he would succumb to the pressure from the public or the media or anybody,” Baker said. “You know, he's a grown man. He made that decision on his own and he wanted to pitch, and he was very adamant about he wanted to pitch and how much better he was feeling.”

Jason Heyward predicts he will be the MVP of 2018 Cubs

Jason Heyward predicts he will be the MVP of 2018 Cubs

“Who will be the Cubs’ 2018 team MVP?”

Jason Heyward: “Me!”

No hesitation, no pause. Just an honest answer from a confident 28-year old with a $184 million contract.

Nobody wants to succeed more at the plate than the Cubs’ two-time Gold Glove award winner, but the offense has been downright ugly (.243, 18 HR, 108 RBI in 268 games).

Despite not performing up to a megadeal, Heyward has no problem talking about his contract:

“It is what it is, I earned it," Heyward said. "I earned that part of it. For me, it’s awesome. To be where I want to be, that’s the most important thing.”

After spending time talking at Cubs Convention speaking with Heyward, his manager and six of his other teammates, it’s no surprise that it was Heyward who delivered the now-famous Game 7 “Rain Delay Speech.”

His teammates adore him.

Question to Ben Zobrist: “Who’s your favorite teammate of all-time at any level?”

After a 10-second pause: “Jason Heyward.”

That definitely says something coming from a 36-year-old, three-time All-Star and World Series MVP.

For the true blue Cubs fans that can’t stand Heyward and his untradeable contract, sorry, his teammates and manager have nothing but good things to say. 

By all accounts, Heyward is a quality human being despite his shortcomings in the batter’s box the last two seasons.

And his goals for an offensive renaissance in 2018 are simple and basic:

“Just being in the lineup every game.”

His teammates will be behind him 100 percent, even if the fans are not.

How Addison Russell plans to keep nagging arm/foot injuries at bay in 2018

How Addison Russell plans to keep nagging arm/foot injuries at bay in 2018

Addison Russell doesn't have time to think about whether or not Javy Baez is coming for the starting shortstop gig.

Russell is too busy making sure he's able to perform at his physical peak for as much of 2018 as possible after a rough few years in that regard.

The soon-to-be-24-year-old only played in 110 games last year as he missed more than a month with a foot injury. He also has a history of hamstring injuries (including the one that kept him out of the 2015 NLCS) and a sore throwing arm that has cropped up at times throughout the last few years (though whether the arm is an issue or not depends on who you ask).

Russell admits his arm has been an issue and he has a new plan of attack this winter that will carry into the spring.

"I've been doing a throwing program," Russell said. "I feel like in the past, with my arm, I started throwing a little bit too early in spring training.

"This year, in the offseason, just kinda ease into it a little bit. In the offseason last year, I feel like I threw a little bit too much. Once midseason hit, it was all the downward effect of me throwing too early in the offseason.

"Having that in mind, taking things easier in the offseason and then going into spring training and then once the season's here, maybe around a quarter of the way through the season, start revving it up and that way, I'll be able to last with both my foot and my arm."

Russell had a bad case of plantar fasciitis last summer that also affected his ability to throw the ball to first base.

He joked he feels like an old man because he is happy he can now wake up without any pain in the foot, but still makes sure he rolls his foot on a golf ball to keep things loose.

With regards to his offseason workouts, Russell is prioritizing quality over quantity and he's taken full advantage of the longer offseason that featured far less distractions than a year ago when the Cubs were coming off the first World Series championship in 108 years.

"I'm getting a little bit older and I think a little wiser when it comes to training and knowing my body," Russell said. "With that being said, it's just kinda being in tune to my body more than pounding out weights.

"Definitely running and cardio is something that has been beneficial to my career in the past. I'm keeping up with that."

Between the foot and arm modifications to his training regimen, Russell is hoping to cut down on some of his throwing errors that plagued him in 2017 and try to get back to the hitter he was when he clubbed 24 homers and drove in 108 runs in 168 games between the 2016 regular season and postseason.

"Definitely I want to be in the All-Star Game this next year," Russell said. "I feel like with the type of skillset that I have and the type of guys around me, I think that could be a goal that I could hit.

"Smaller goals as far as staying consistent with my workouts. Remaining flexible is a huge goal that I wanna hit this year. I see a lot of veteran guys after ballgames stretching and they've been playing for quite a while, so it definitely works out for them.

"Just taking something from veteran guys and kinda incorporating it into my game and picking their ear and listening to how they prepare and how to keep your body in shape is beneficial, for sure."

To make the All-Star Game, Russell would need to get out to a hot start, which is something the Cubs and their fans would love to see. His steady presence in the lineup and as a defensive anchor contributed to the inconsistencies of the 2017 Cubs.

Entering a pivotal season in his development, Russell has emerged as one of the biggest X-factors surrounding the Cubs entering 2018. 

The entire Addison Russell 1-on-1 interview will air Friday night on NBC Sports Chicago.