CHICAGO - When he walked out of Wrigley Field on Tuesday evening, Dusty Baker fully expected Tanner Roark to start a must-win Game 4 of the National League Division Series. Despite the Nationals’ hopes, Stephen Strasburg simply was too ill at that moment for his manager to believe he could take the mound the following afternoon.
Baker, though, has been in this sport long enough to have seen it all. He’s seen guys play through injuries and illness, and he’s seen guys’ conditions dramatically improve from one day to the next. So the 68-year-old skipper didn’t shut the door entirely (in his mind) on a Strasburg start in Game 4.
“I was planning on Tanner pitching,” Baker said. “But you know, things can ... the thing about baseball is that you have to ... things are subject to change. And it was a ... maybe the rain helped him and helped us, like I hoped that it would. I said my prayers and said: ‘Hey, man, let the rain try to help us.’ “
Whether it was divine intervention, pressure internally or externally, or just some really strong antibiotics, Baker’s prayers were answered. When Strasburg woke up this morning, he felt better. Strasburg called pitching coach Mike Maddux to inform him. And when the rest of the Nationals decision-makers convened at Wrigley Field, the right-hander told them what they needed to hear: “I want to start this game.”
“The fact that he was much more like the real Stephen Strasburg, we felt that that Stephen Strasburg gave us a much better chance to win Game 4,” general manager Mike Rizzo said. “And that’s it.”
That’s it, but the path that brought Strasburg and the Nationals to that point was far more convoluted, with twists and turns over the course of 18 hours that left the baseball world at various points incensed, confused, enraged and then relieved.
The Nationals didn’t help matters moments after Tuesday’s originally scheduled game was postponed. Baker’s press conference, in which he announced Roark would still start Game 4 even though Strasburg could pitch on normal rest, did not spell out the precise symptoms Strasburg was dealing with, the manager instead using vagaries like “under the weather” and speculating that a high mold count in Chicago right now may have been a contributing factor. Baker also mistakenly said Strasburg threw a bullpen session that afternoon, when in fact that had taken place the previous day.
A club spokeswoman attempted to clear up some of the confusion later Tuesday night, then Rizzo took it step farther before today’s game when he gave a lengthy rundown of events during a packed press conference.
“After his start on Friday, a couple days afterwards, he started feeling flu-like symptoms, and that continued for the next couple of days: fever, chills, acute sinusitis,” Rizzo said. “And when he threw his bullpen Monday, he was feeling really bad. He had no endurance. He was really weak and it was ... just wasn’t feeling great.
“You know, he battled through it. He saw our doctors, and they aggressively put him on an antibiotic regimen, anti-inflammatories and fluid IVs. He’s taken several IVs the last couple of days, last night, and again today.
“At the time of the rainout Tuesday, when we were going to announce our starter for the rain game, we went to Stras, and he told me he wanted to take the ball. He said: ‘I’ll give you everything I’ve got,’ but he doesn’t know how much he has.
“We felt at that time it wasn’t enough, when we have a guy like Tanner Roark there that’s able to start. Tanner was prepared. It was his day to start. And we felt very, very comfortable giving him the ball in Game 4.”
The Nationals could have avoided a lot of the scrutiny had they simply announced Tuesday night that Strasburg was ill, and therefore they weren’t prepared to name Wednesday’s starter. According to a Major League Baseball official, the league does not require teams to name a postseason starter the day before a game, and some in the past have noted they intended “to sleep on it” before making an announcement in the morning.
Turns out, the situation did change overnight, and Strasburg reported this morning he felt much better and was ready to start. The skeptical view might still wonder if the right-hander (whose career has been marred by injuries both large and small) made his decision not based on how he felt but as a response to criticism that had been hurled at him since Tuesday night. Both Rizzo and Baker insisted that was not the case.
“Did the media pressure him into starting this? I don’t think Stephen Strasburg cares about what the media thinks about him or says about him,” Rizzo said. “He wanted the ball in this game because he wants to win this game and he thinks he’s our best option. And he’s an ultra-competitor and he feels this gives us a chance to win.”
What about internal pressure, whether from the Nationals coaching staff, front office or teammates?
“We didn’t put that pressure on him, and I don’t think that he would succumb to the pressure from the public or the media or anybody,” Baker said. “You know, he’s a grown man. He made that decision on his own, and he wanted to pitch and he was very adamant about he wanted to pitch and how much better he was feeling. So, no, he wasn’t pressured at all, that I know of.”
What can the Nationals reasonably expect from Strasburg today? Baker has reasonable expectations.
“I’m not a doctor, (but) he’s 90-plus percent well,” the manager said. “At this point in time, he knows what’s at stake. And also at this point, how many guys are 100 percent?”
If Strasburg struggles, the Nationals have an excess of relief options. Rizzo described the situation as “all hands on deck,” and both he and Baker confirmed that Max Scherzer (who threw 98 pitches Monday) is available out of the bullpen, though probably not for much work.
Baker wouldn’t name a starter for Thursday night’s potential Game 5 at Nationals Park, but he suggested he’d like to avoid using Roark in relief, if possible, in today’s game. Game 2 starter Gio Gonzalez also would be on normal rest, if he’s not used today.