Strasburg’s gem, Taylor’s slam bring Nats home for Game 5

CHICAGO - All the precautions they took with him earlier in his career, all the bumps along the way he dealt with that prevented him from taking the mound as much as he or the Nationals wanted, all of that meant nothing this afternoon at cold, raw, windy Wrigley Field.

Because with their season on the line, the Nationals handed the ball to Stephen Strasburg. And, after a chaotic and convoluted 24 hours during which he was pulled from the outing and then reinserted for the start, Strasburg delivered the performance of his life.

And thanks to him - with a major assist from one gigantic swing from Michael A. Taylor - the Nationals will play at least one more ballgame in 2017.

Stephen-Strasburg-set-gray-back-sidebar.jpgBattling an illness and named the Nationals’ Game 4 starter only three hours before first pitch, Strasburg churned out seven scoreless innings and struck out 12, pitching brilliantly on a day when his teammates were trying to make one early run hold up. Then, after Strasburg had given everything he had in the course of 106 pitches, Taylor delivered the kill shot: a grand slam off Cubs closer Wade Davis in the top of the eighth that carried the Nats to a 5-0 victory before a stunned crowd at the corner of Clark and Addison.

Pilloried by many around the baseball world Tuesday night and this morning when it appeared he would not be able to make the start due to his illness, Strasburg flat-out changed the narrative and authored his second utterly dominant start of the series. In 14 innings over the last six days, he has allowed two unearned runs, six hits and three walks while striking out 22, a career-defining week for the right-hander who couldn’t pitch in two of the Nationals’ previous three trips to the postseason.

The Nats needed exactly that from Strasburg today, because their bats once again were silent for most of this wet, pitcher-friendly ballgame. Until Taylor came through with a most unexpected blast at a most opportune moment.

Batting with the bases loaded and two out in the top of the eighth, Taylor took ball one from reliever Carl Edwards Jr., then watched as Cubs manager Joe Maddon summoned Davis to take over the at-bat. No matter, because after fouling off his first pitch, Taylor lashed the next one to right field. And despite a biting wind that knocked down every other fly ball in this game, Taylor’s drive somehow fell just into the basket hovering above the famed ivy.

As Taylor circled the bases, the cheers of a handful of red-clad fans scattered among a sea of blue could be heard, but everyone else stone-cold silent. The Nationals led by five runs and needed only six outs from their bullpen to wrap this up.

Those six outs proved more than a formality, with Ryan Madson throwing 27 pitches in the eighth. But Sean Doolittle finished it off in the ninth, and so both clubs now head to Washington for Thursday night’s Game 5, the third such do-or-die game to be contested at Nationals Park in the last six seasons.

Kyle Hendricks will start for the Cubs. Who will throw the first pitch for the Nats at 8:08 p.m.? We’ll await the answer, with Gio Gonzalez and Tanner Roark the most likely options and Max Scherzer most certainly available to pitch at some point in the game.

The Nationals hoped they’d get the elite version of Strasburg when he took the mound today, but they had no way of knowing for sure, not given everything that had transpired over the previous 24 hours. It didn’t take long, though, to realize he was going to be just fine.

Just as he did in Game 1, Strasburg retired the side in the first inning, striking out both Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo. He pitched out of a two-on, two-out jam in the second, then got down to serious business, striking out six of the next seven batters he faced.

Wearing short sleeves despite the raw, windy conditions, Strasburg displayed command of all three of his top pitches. He especially relied on a devastating changeup, which accounted for three of his strikeouts during that mid-game stretch and became his go-to pitch when he needed a big one.

The crowd tried to rattle the 29-year-old with the occasional “Strasburg! Strasburg!” taunting chant, but he brushed each of them aside either with another strikeout or a rally-killing double play.

And the Nationals needed him to be that good, because once again they struggled mightily to push runs across the plate, despite chances. They did get on the board in the top of the third, thanks in large part to Trea Turner’s long-awaited first hit of the series: a broken-bat double into the left field corner that snapped an 0-for-13 funk.

Even then, it was a chore to get Turner home. It required a wild pitch by Jake Arrieta, then an error by shortstop Addison Russell on Ryan Zimmerman’s slow roller. Daniel Murphy’s strikeout left two more runners on base, though, leaving the Nats with a 1-0 lead.

They had another golden opportunity in the fourth, turning Anthony Rendon’s double and two more walks issued by Arrieta into a bases-loaded, two-out opportunity for Jayson Werth. Playing in what for all he knew might be his last game for the Nationals, Werth was called out looking at strike three for the second time in as many innings, again leaving his team clinging to a 1-0 lead.

And it remained that way, with Game 2 starter Jon Lester coming out of the Cubs bullpen to replace Arrieta following four laborious innings and setting down the first 10 batters he faced, then walking Zimmerman and then picking him off in defiance of his well-known throwing yips.

That left Strasburg with zero margin for error. Good thing he had no intention of making even one costly mistake today during the performance of his life.

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