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Delayed dominance for Strasburg

Delayed dominance for Strasburg

As an out-of-nowhere cloudburst doused Nationals Park and a crowd of 33,388 during a 51-minute delay in the top of the third inning Tuesday night, Stephen Strasburg did whatever he could to stay loose and ready to retake the mound should the skies part and this showdown with the Braves resume.

On the advice of pitching coach Steve McCatty, Strasburg went to the batting tunnel below the Nationals' dugout and threw about 15 pitches. Then he retreated to the clubhouse for a break. Then he returned to the tunnel for another 15 throws. Then back to the clubhouse for another break before finally both teams were summoned to the field for the resumption of play.

"It's my first time really dealing with the rain delay or anything," he said. "Cat kind of coached me through it."

The way he responded to the interruption, perhaps Strasburg should try to incorporate that new routine into all of his starts. He actually got better as the night went on, tossing six dominant innings to lead the Nationals to a 4-1 victory and a 7-game lead over its lone remaining challenger for the NL East crown.

"He was totally locked-in tonight," catcher Jesus Flores said, adding: "He was really even better after the delay for me. It was really fun to catch him tonight."

And really fun for that boisterous crowd to watch and cheer for every time he recorded a big out in perhaps the biggest game he's ever pitched (with all due respect to that NCAA regional he started for San Diego State in 2009).

Facing a desperate Atlanta club trying to not lose all hope of the division title before the calendar even shifts to September, Strasburg rose to the occasion. He struck out 10, including six of the 12 batters he faced after the delay. He located every one of his pitches with pinpoint accuracy, had left-handed hitters flailing helplessly at 91 mph change-ups in dirt and right-handed batters flinching on curveballs that wound up in the strike zone.

"He knows what he wants to do," manager Davey Johnson said. "And he's had enough experience up here against good-hitting ballclubs that he knows exactly the sequence he wants to go in and where he wants to go with it."

Strasburg needed to be that precise most of his evening, because the Nationals held a slim, 1-0 margin through the top of the fifth, Ian Desmond's solo homer representing the lone tally to that point. It wasn't until Flores launched a three-run blast in the bottom of the fifth that the lead was extended to four runs and offered Strasburg some cushion.

With his starter's pitch count at 81, plus however many more tosses he threw in the cage during the delay, Johnson could have turned to his bullpen right then and there. Not that the 69-year-old skipper had any visions of doing that.

"I think the whole stadium -- if I'd have hooked him after five after he punched out the side -- they'd have been, or you guys would have been, wanting to string me up," Johnson said.

As it turned out, Strasburg gave up a run in the sixth after a double, a single and a sacrifice fly. But just when it appeared he might be in actual trouble, the right-hander was bailed out by his batterymate, who gunned down Jason Heyward trying to advance to second base on a pitch in the dirt.

Strasburg, an intense competitor but not one who typically shows his emotions on the field, offered up two fist pumps and then pointed and yelled at Flores to acknowledge the key play.

"I think it reminded me a lot of my debut out there, having the sellout crowd," Strasburg said of the overall environment. "It's great to be pitching for something. And I think you ask any of the guys in here, we're all in it together and we're giving it everything we have every day."

Three relievers (Drew Storen, Sean Burnett and Tyler Clippard) finished off the game for Strasburg, handing him his 15th win of the season and showing plenty of emotion themselves as they completed each of their innings down the stretch.

"It was huge," Clippard said of Strasburg's outing one night after a 13-inning marathon. "We needed six or seven from him tonight. ... He was unbelievable tonight. He's one of the best pitchers in the game, and that's what he showed tonight, especially in a big game like this."

Strasburg (now 4-0 with a 1.50 ERA in August) will have the opportunity to pitch in a few more big games over the next couple of weeks, but he won't get the chance to pitch in the even bigger games that will come in late-September and perhaps beyond.

His innings total now up to 145 13, he's inching ever closer to the day when general manager Mike Rizzo informs him he's done for 2012.

Strasburg has no idea when that day will be. The Nationals are purposely not spelling out their precise plan so he doesn't start thinking about it.

So he just keeps taking the ball every fifth day, hoping to do whatever he can to help get the Nationals a step closer to their ultimate goal, blocking out all the hysteria around him.

"It's funny, nobody talks to me personally about it," he said. "So obviously I can either scour the internet or watch all the stuff being said on TV, or I can just keep pitching and watch the Golf Channel, I guess."

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Cubs drop protest, but not stance about Sean Doolittle's delivery

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Cubs drop protest, but not stance about Sean Doolittle's delivery

WASHINGTON -- Sunday afternoon’s discussions still revolved around Saturday night’s close, which Washington manager Davey Martinez referred to as a “fiasco” on Sunday.

Chicago manager Joe Maddon started a chaotic situation when he popped out of the dugout following Sean Doolittle’s first pitch in the ninth inning Saturday. Maddon contended Doolittle’s “toe-tap” was an illegal delivery, akin to when Chicago reliever Carl Edwards Jr. tried to add a pause in spring training, but was told the move was illegal.

The umpires told him, and Doolittle, the delivery was legal. Chicago filed a protest with the league. After consulting with Major League Baseball and MLB’s Chief Baseball Officer, Joe Torre, the Cubs dropped their protest Sunday morning.

A point of differentiation is whether the pitcher is taking a second step. Umpires previously determined Edwards was taking a second step. They determined Doolittle was not. This is a judgment call for the umpires and is not reviewable.

Official Baseball Rule 5.07(a) states in part: “The pitcher may not take a second step toward home plate with either foot or otherwise reset his pivot foot in his delivery of the pitch. If there is a runner, or runners, on base it is a balk under Rule 6.02(a); if the bases are unoccupied it is an illegal pitch under Rule 6.02(b).”

The league, according to Maddon, said there is a difference between Edwards placing his full foot on the ground and Doolittle grazing the mound with a cleat when he delivered. Maddon continued to not agree with the interpretation.

“We went through the whole process,” Maddon said. “Our guys in the office spoke to MLB and I talked to Mr. Torre. The whole thing I wanted to really get done was protect Carl. I really didn’t anticipate a whole lot to be done with it. Even though I still don’t agree with the conclusion, because I think it’s exactly what Carl did, only a different version of it. But the point was, I would not be a good parent if I had not spoken up for my guy. And that’s what I was doing last night and, again, it’s just to eliminate any gray area there just for future because it’s going to happen again down the road somewhere and you’re just trying to delineate what is right and what is wrong. In my mind, it wasn’t a judgment call, I thought it was black-and-white. It wasn’t gray.”

Maddon said multiple times that Doolittle tapped with his toe in addition to grazing the mound, both of which, he contended, were not legal or different than Edwards' attempt at deception.

The congenial Doolittle was steamed postgame Saturday and remained irritated Sunday. Saturday, he took multiple shots at Maddon during his postgame commentary. He also taunted the idea when throwing warmup pitches while Maddon argued with umpires by making exaggerated kicks with his leg and multiple stops with his foot. Doolittle switched to a delivery without any stops -- one he often uses -- after the protest as a way to show Maddon he didn’t need the tweak to be successful.

“In that moment, he's not trying to do anything other than rattle me and it was kind of tired,” Doolittle said Saturday. “I don't know. Sometimes he has to remind people how smart he is and how much he pays attention to the game and stuff like that. He put his stamp on it for sure.

"I actually have to thank him. After they came out the second, the [Kyle] Schwarber at-bat, I threw two fastballs and a slider and a fastball to [Kris] Bryant and those were probably the best ones I've thrown in a while. I don't do the tap when there's somebody on base so I can keep my pickoff move available if I need it. I've had a lot of traffic recently, so I've had practice doing it, so it wasn't like a huge adjustment to me. I don't know. In a way, I kind of need to thank him."

Asked Sunday if Doolittle’s comments were relayed to him, Maddon smiled and said yes.

“Listen, I have no issue with that whatsoever,” Maddon said. “We’re all emotional. I’ve said a lot of things I didn’t want to say years ago -- even in this ballpark. I think if he understood the entire context, he might have had a different opinion. Even if he was the manager himself -- if he was me -- or if he was being protected by his manager under similar circumstances, I think his stance may be different.”

No one -- the league, Maddon or Doolittle -- changed their perspective a day later.

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Joe Maddon's protest prompts Sean Doolittle to call his act 'tired'

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Joe Maddon's protest prompts Sean Doolittle to call his act 'tired'

WASHINGTON -- Sean Doolittle stood at his locker in the clubhouse still roiled by what occurred in the ninth inning Saturday. 

His clean inning for his eighth save was not on his mind. Chicago Cubs manager Joe Maddon was.

The Cubs appeared to enact a pre-planned grouse when they say Doolittle next. Chicago quality assurance coach Chris Denorfia was talking to the umpires as Doolittle warmed up in the 5-2 game. Following Doolittle's first pitch, Maddon popped out of the dugout to begin his banter, and eventual protest, of Doolittle's delivery.

At question was Doolittle's toe tap. With no runners on base, he raises his front leg, drops and holds it for a count, then grazes the dirt with is cleat before he fully comes to the plate. Doolittle started this almost a year ago during a late May series in Miami. No one had complained since -- until Maddon emerged from the Cubs' dugout.

If the umpires deem the move illegal, the outcome is a ball called with the bases empty or a balk called with runners on base. Saturday, home plate umpire Sam Holbrook told Doolittle he was doing nothing wrong. Which turned the postgame discussion around the event to Maddon's intentions. 

A starting point would be one of Maddon's relievers, Carl Edwards Jr., tried to add a similar move in spring training. But Edwards was putting his full foot on the ground and was told the move was illegal. 
Doolittle was more inclined to believe Maddon's primary motivation was to rattle him at the start of the save opportunity, and he calmly, but clearly, took digs at Maddon for the process. 

"After the first time Joe came out, the home plate umpire was like you're fine, just keep it moving," Doolittle said. "Don't start, stop and start again. Just keep it moving. I was like, that's what I do all the time anyway, so...in that moment, he's not trying to do anything other than rattle me and it was kind of tired. I don't know. Sometimes he has to remind people how smart he is and how much he pays attention to the game and stuff like that. He put his stamp on it for sure. 

"I actually have to thank him. After they came out the second, the [Kyle] Schwarber at-bat, I threw two fastballs and a slider and a fastball to [Kris] Bryant and those were probably the best ones I've thrown in a while. I don't do the tap when there's somebody on base so I can keep my pickoff move available if I need it. I've had a lot of traffic recently, so I've had practice doing it, so it wasn't like a huge adjustment to me. I don't know. In a way, I kind of need to thank him."
Doolittle wasn't finished. He was later asked if he thought Maddon was trying to get him to change his mechanics.

"Well, yeah, that's part of the mind game that he was trying to play and I get that," Doolittle said. "I guess I should take it as a compliment that he felt like he had to do that in order to try to throw me off my game in that situation. They're trying to get you to over-think it and change something in the middle of a save opportunity to give them a chance where you start making mistakes or are over-thinking it. 

"But once the home plate umpire tells me, he said, you're fine, just keep it moving, it's just a tap, at this point, I've been doing it for over a year. We're a month-and-a-half into the season, so I know their guy had to make an adjustment; I thought it was a thinly veiled attempt to kind of throw me off."

Members of the Nationals staff were also irked. Among their concerns was the chance for Doolittle to injure himself if he suddenly changed his delivery.
Maddon was adamant the situation was created by Edwards not being allowed to alter his delivery.

“It’s really simple," Maddon said. "That’s exactly what Carl (Edwards) was told he can’t do. And I was told it was an illegal pitch and he can’t do it. I went to Sam (Holbrook), and I told him that. And he said, ‘in our judgment.’ I said, ‘there’s no judgment. If he taps the ground, it’s an illegal pitch, period.’ There’s nothing to judge. You can judge whether he did or not. It’s obvious that he did. If you can’t tell that, then there’s something absolutely wrong. So that was my argument.

"I said if you guys don’t clean it up, I’m going to protest the game.  So we protested the game. For me, I don’t know how many he actually did make that were illegal pitches. I don’t know how they’re going to rule with this. It’s their rule. It’s not mine. I didn’t ask for it in the first place. They took it away from Carl. They took it away from (Cory) Gearrin. They’ve taken it away from a couple guys and they seem to be somewhat aware, but not aware of what had happened."

Wherever the truth resides, Saturday night became another installment in the oddities when Chicago and Washington play. The Cubs walked Bryce Harper 13 times in 19 plate appearances in 2016. The 2017 five-game National League Division Series which ended in Nationals Park included Stephen Strasburg's mystery illness and PR gaffe about who would pitch Game 4 in Chicago. Add Saturday night to the strangeness and buckle up for Sunday's series finale.

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