By Chris Emma—
CHICAGO (CBS) – Stephen Strasburg, described by his manager as a man of few words, answered his critics emphatically without saying a thing.
With the Nationals’ season pushed to its brink and his legacy on the line, Strasburg responded from an illness that had his availability in question to take the ball and dominate Game 4 of the National League Division Series on Wednesday, leading Washington to a 5-0 victory against the Chicago Cubs to force a winner-take-all Game 5 on Thursday night.
All the talk about Strasburg – his place in the Nationals’ failures of the past, his whopping $175-million contract, his pride as a big-game pitcher – was silenced with a dominant pitching performance in which he threw seven scoreless innings of three-hit ball and struck out 12. He left the Cubs looking foolish at the plate.
“I could see the focus and determination in his eyes,” Nationals manager Dusty Baker said.
Late Tuesday evening after Game 4 had been washed out by rain, the Nationals sat on their team bus and moved toward a newly booked hotel for one more night in Chicago with Strasburg feeling miserable. Tanner Roark had just been named the starter for Wednesday’s rescheduled Game 4, and Strasburg sat alone in his thoughts realizing his chance to take the mound was minimal as dealt with an illness that had sapped his energy.
In announcing Roark as the starter, Baker explained that Strasburg was “under the weather,” choosing to keep his words vague but also citing mold in the Chicago and the hotel air conditioning as reasons for the illness. With that the narratives questioning the 29-year-old Strasburg — as a pitcher, competitor and man — started back up.
Strasburg had his antibiotics switched up and after a good night of sleep, he woke up Wednesday feeling well enough to pitch. He called pitching coach Mike Maddux and said he wanted the ball. Baker and Nationals officials gladly obliged when they saw he was much more himself.
As it turns out, Strasburg credited decreased energy for keeping him composed on the mound and allowing him to focus on each pitch. His health was still poor, but the Nationals didn’t notice.
He called the illness “a challenge.”
“It sucked the life out of me every single day,” Strasburg said.
“Games like this, you have to go out and give it everything you have – whatever it is.”
Strasburg was drafted with the top overall pick in the 2009 MLB amateur draft as a flame-throwing prospect with high expectations. The Nationals believed he could be their ace for the years to come, the pitcher responsible with leading them to championships. His history with the franchise is complicated.
Back in 2012, with the Nationals considered a World Series favorite, Strasburg was shut down due to an innings limit and his team lost to the Cardinals in the NLDS. Washington was back in the postseason two years later but lost to the San Francisco Giants in four games in the divisional round. Strasburg took a loss and went just five innings in his lone start in that series. Last year, he was out with an injury as the Nationals lost to the Dodgers in five games in the NLDS.
So here they were again, the Nationals arriving in the NLDS with high hopes against the defending champion Cubs, only to be pushed to another elimination game. They needed Strasburg to pitch them back to Washington, and he did just that.
Strasburg worked a one-two-three first inning, which included curveballs to get Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo. He allowed two Cubs on base an inning later but induced a roller from Javier Baez to escape trouble.
Strasburg fooled Bryant with a changeup in the third and struck out Rizzo, Ben Zobrist and Addison Russell in the fourth on changeups. He retired Bryant a third time on another changeup in the sixth and then struck out the side in the seventh, all on changeups.
He was so dominant and yet completely removed from the pressure at hand.
“Whatever I had in the take, I’m giving it everything I had,” Strasburg said. “I was really taking it one pitch at a time. Before I knew it, it was seven innings down.”
The Cubs’ hopes of a clubhouse party were soon dashed in the top of the eighth inning as Michael A. Taylor fought a mistake from Wade Davis through a gusting wind and into the basket in right-center field for a grand slam. The Nationals celebrated, feeling the winner-take-all game ahead.
Sure enough, it was Strasburg who brought his team to life. He fought through a draining virus and looked to be a man stronger than ever.
On the biggest stage of his career, Strasburg was gutsy, decisive and strong.
He answered every narrative without a word.