With game of his life, Strasburg rewrites his story

CHICAGO - Stephen Strasburg rode the Nationals team bus back to their relocated downtown hotel following Tuesday’s rainout at Wrigley Field, checked into his room, took some newly prescribed antibiotics and went to sleep. At that moment, what chance did the ailing right-hander think he had of taking the mound the next afternoon for a win-or-else ballgame against the Cubs?

“It wasn’t much, to be honest,” he said.

And then Strasburg woke up this morning, feeling like the antibiotics had made a difference, and decided it was time to place a call to pitching coach Mike Maddux and declare something he could not declare 12 hours earlier.

Strasburg-Gray-NLDS-Sidebar.jpg“I wouldn’t say I felt great, but I felt like I was better than what I was the day before,” he said. “And so games like this, you have to go out there and give it everything you have, whatever it is. So I called Mad Dog in the morning and said: ‘Just give me the ball.’ That’s what he did.”

Maddux - along with manager Dusty Baker and general manager Mike Rizzo - gave the 29-year-old right-hander the ball. Strasburg then gave them the performance of his life.

With seven scoreless innings on a raw, wet, windy afternoon at Wrigley Field, Strasburg lifted the Nationals to a 5-0 victory in Game 4 of the National League Division Series. He not only ensured there will be yet another do-or-die Game 5 at Nationals Park, this one coming Thursday at 8:08 p.m., but he also ensured the narrative of his career would forever be changed.

Who knows what else Strasburg will do before his time in baseball is over. Maybe he’ll pitch even bigger games and hoist a trophy or two. Maybe he’ll surrender a game-changing home run or two. Whatever the case, he’ll always have this performance.

“It was huge,” shortstop Trea Turner said. “I think this time of year, you can’t feel bad for yourself. You can’t make excuses. He came out and threw a great game for us. It was unbelievable, and we really needed it.”

That’s an understatement. Trailing two games to one in the best-of-five series, and unable to muster much of any offense against Chicago’s pitching throughout this best-of-five contest, the Nationals didn’t just need Strasburg to start Game 4. They needed him to be great.

And they didn’t even know he’d be starting until three hours before gametime, once he had met with Maddux, Baker and Rizzo in person and the decision was made to send him to the mound despite less-than-perfect health.

Teammates insisted they weren’t consumed with the drama that unfolded between Tuesday evening (when Baker initially named Tanner Roark the starter) and noon Wednesday (when the club officially submitted a lineup with Strasburg’s name on it).

So how did they find out?

“I think my wife texted me,” second baseman Daniel Murphy said. “I’m not sure, like noon or 1 (p.m.). But I’m oblivious to most of that stuff, to be completely honest with you.”

“Stras was sick all week, I knew that. Came in the other day and his face was the color of that carpet,” right fielder Bryce Harper said, pointing to the green artificial turf he was standing on. “For him to be able to cowboy up tonight and do his job, go out there, shows how much of a great teammate he is. Just a warrior.”

Those weren’t words that typically had been applied to Strasburg through the first seven seasons of his career. Even when he pitched exceptionally well, he seemed to be known more for the times he wasn’t able to pitch due to physical ailments both large and small.

Strasburg, though, has done a lot in the last three months to change that perception, whether it was fair or not. He cruised through the latter portion of the season, with a second-half ERA of 0.86 that ranks as second-best of any pitcher in baseball’s live ball era.

Then he took the ball for Game 1 at Nationals Park and proceeded to carry a no-hitter into the sixth inning before an Anthony Rendon error opened the door for a two-run Cubs rally. He was charged with the loss in that game, but the specter of him pitching again in the series loomed large for Chicago.

So when the originally scheduled Game 4 was rained out and pushed back to this afternoon - and once Strasburg had recovered enough from his illness to declare himself ready to go - there was now extra juice for a game the Nationals simply had to win. That the right-hander proceeded to outdo even himself only added to the growing legend.

Strasburg scattered three hits and two walks over his seven innings. He allowed only two Cubs to reach scoring position. He struck out two in the first, three in the third, three in the fourth, one in the sixth and then punctuated his performance by striking out the side in the seventh, relying heavily on a changeup that utterly baffled Chicago’s lineup.

“He had everything working tonight,” Baker said. “He had a great changeup. His fastball is always good, good slider. And like I said, he looked very, very determined. The only time I asked him anything was at the end of the seventh.”

At that point, Strasburg had thrown 106 pitches. He had done whatever he could to keep his body warm between innings on this miserable October day in Chicago, often retreating to the batting tunnel to escape the wind.

“I’m surprised I was able to hang in there,” he said. “But again, I think it’s just those situations where you try and break the game down, keep it simple. And just know that going in, whatever I have in the tank, I’m giving it everything I have. I really just stuck to one pitch at a time, and before I knew it, it was seven innings down.”

Seven glorious innings. Seven innings of scoreless ball. Seven innings of three-hit ball. Seven innings of 12-strikeout ball.

Add that to his numbers from Game 1, and in these two postseason starts, Strasburg has tossed 14 innings without allowing an earned run, surrendering only six hits and three walks, striking out 22.

Narrative? What narrative? Strasburg is authoring a brand-new identity before our eyes. And the Nationals couldn’t be more thrilled that it’s happening right now.

“I don’t think it told us anything we didn’t already know,” first baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. “When he’s healthy and he’s on the mound, he’s one the best, if not the best, pitchers in the game. To have him come out and do that in a spot like that was obviously - huge is an understatement - for us.”

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