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.”