Cubs

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.

Quintana's script against Brewers flipped

jq.jpg
USA TODAY

Quintana's script against Brewers flipped

Before this afternoon's game against the Brewers, Jose Quintana had a 0.95 ERA against them, but thanks to some first-inning longballs, that changed quickly. Milwaukee, on their way to a 7-0 win at Wrigley Field, had sort of stumbled in to this two game series thanks to shaky bullpen performances against the Padres and Braves in their previous two series, and given Quintana's past success against them, it didn't appear likely going into the game that things would change.
 
It took all of two pitches for Lorenzo Cain to homer to left, and then later in the first inning, for Ryan Braun to do the same with a two-run shot that gave the Brewers a quick 3-0 lead. Braun, who before today's game was hitting .143 without even an extra base hit against Quintana, ultimately homered twice.
 
"Everything he’s thrown me, he’s had success with," Braun said of Quintana. "Everything he’s shown me had worked for him."
 
As a team, the Brewers were hitting just .202 against Quintana, so they knew scoring opportunities would be at a premium.
 
"A guy as good as him isn’t going to make many mistakes, so any mistakes he does make you have to take advantage of," Braun said. "He’s had so much success against us, the odds were we were going to find a way to score a couple runs, we were able to do that against him today."
 
In the first inning, Cain homered in the first on a fastball left too far in the zone, and Braun on a curveball that didn't break away from the sweet spot. Braun's second homer came on a 75 mph curveball after Quintana fell behind in the count 2-0.
 
Brewers starter Jhoulys Chacin said that going into the game, he was thinking about how much his offense has struggled against Quintana, but seeing them score so early eased the pressure on him and allowed him to work with his slider and fastball a little more aggressively.
 
"A couple of big-time players stepped up in the first inning, and I mean, yea, we've really struggled against this guy," Brewers manager Craig Counsell said of the first-inning success against Quintana. "You put up three runs in the first inning with two homers, it flips the script pretty fast."
 
With the onus off of Chacin, he was better able to throw seven scoreless innings on the way to his sixth decision in his last seven starts. Today's was an especially important win for Milwaukee, who entered this week's short series three games behind the Cubs. Brewers players differed on whether or not they'd call it a must-win, however.
 
"We have six more after these against the Cubs, but I feel like any game is must-win right now," Chacin said.
 
Braun, who has seen firsthand how much games in August and September can change the course of what had been a successful season, called it a little differently.
 
"It’s pretty close to a must-win. If we want to stay in the division race, I think we had to win one of two, ideally you gotta win both," Braun said. "These guys are really good, you obviously didn’t want to leave here down five games."
 
Against the packed crowd of 40,441 Tuesday, Braun said that he enjoys the atmosphere at Wrigley as the opponent.
 
"I’ve always enjoyed playing here. As a competitor, there’s no more enjoyable atmosphere to play in than this. The more hostile the environment is, the more enjoyable it is as a competitor. This place is always packed, it’s always loud. It’s a very challenging place to win," Braun said.
 
Even with another win tomorrow, the Brewers will still remain a game behind the Cubs, but Braun said that he is thankful to be playing in meaningful games at this point in the season regardless. After tomorrow, the Cubs and Brewers play two series in the first half at September, one at Miller Park and one at Wrigley Field.
 
 

Ben Zobrist earned his first career ejection thanks to one hell of a zinger

Ben Zobrist earned his first career ejection thanks to one hell of a zinger

Two days after David Bote turned in the best moment of the Cubs' season, Ben Zobrist delivered the best line of the Cubs' season.

As the top of the ninth inning was getting underway, the 37-year-old mild-mannered veteran was seen talking with home plate umpire Phil Cuzzi.

As Jorge De La Rosa finished his warm-up pitches and the inning was about to start, suddenly Zobrist and Cuzzi got animated and the next thing anybody knew, Zobrist was slapped with his first-ever ejection.

"When you have good, quality at-bats as a hitter and you feel like it's kinda taken away from you, you want some sort of an answer," Zobrist said. "Or you want to be assured that they're gonna go back and make an adjustment and that's what I asked for.

"It was met with, basically, he didn't want to talk about that. He didn't want me to tell him that. I just basically said, 'Well that's why we want an electronic strike zone.'"

MIC. DROP.

This came after a passionate discussion between the two men in the bottom of the sixth inning when Zobrist was called out on strikes on a full count pitch he thought was clearly off the plate. On that play, Joe Maddon came out to intercede and was ejected, but Zobrist walked back to the dugout to collect himself and remained in the game.

So before his next at-bat, Zobrist wanted to say his piece. A calm discussion transformed into something more and while Zobrist didn't apologize for what he said, he was willing to admit his pride played a factor.

"It is what it is," he said. "I'm not gonna lie. When you're dealing with that and you're trying to have good, quality at-bats and you feel like it gets taken away from you, sometimes your pride gets in your way and you say things that are going to upset them. Obviously that upset him and he tossed me."

Zobrist's strikeout wasn't an altogether huge moment in the game, but the pitch — a breaking ball off from Jhoulys Chacin that started off the plate and remained off the plate — should've been Ball 4 and would've given the Cubs runners at first and second with nobody out for Jason Heyward. Sure, it was a 7-0 ballgame, but with the wind blowing out and the Cubs had 12 outs left, crazier things have happened (which Bote just proved).

The Cubs never went on to record another hit, but they didn't blame Cuzzi for that.

"Whenever Zo argues, as a manager, you better get your butt out there," Maddon said. "He's rare to be that way and eventually to get ejected, that's unfortunate. But regardless, there was a couple bad calls, but we gotta do a better job offensively. My god."

Zobrist said he's been more animated and riled up at other points in his career compared to Tuesday afternoon, but obviously that zinger was enough to get the job done to notch his first-ever ejection.

Almost a year ago to the day, Zobrist was very nearly tossed in a game against the Reds, but Maddon once again got in the middle.

This is the latest chapter in what has become a surprising trend of the Cubs vs. umpire debacle. 

For the third straight homestand, the Cubs have had an issue with the umpiring crew — from Javy Baez getting tossed against the Cardinals last month to Anthony Rizzo getting heated with Angel Hernandez two weekends ago to Maddon getting the boot a few days ago against the Nationals.

Only Rizzo's was related to balls and strikes, but between him and Zobrist — two guys who rarely argue — getting heated in the span of 9 days, it begs the question: Does Major League Baseball need an electronic strike zone?

"I'm just gonna leave it at that," Zobrist said. "I think that discussion will happen eventually. But I'm just gonna leave right now at the fact that I said that today. That's it."