The gutsy start that forever changed Strasburg's narrative

The narrative of the Nationals franchise as a whole, and the narrative of many of those who wore the Nats uniform, forever changed last October. What had been regarded by many as a very good organization that consistently underachieved in the postseason is now thought of as a model of perseverance and togetherness.

The Nationals finally rose to the occasion in 2019, and high on the list of players who made that possible is Stephen Strasburg, who had a brilliant postseason capped by World Series MVP honors. He's no longer the gifted pitcher who couldn't live up to his potential because he couldn't take the mound when his team needed him most. He's now the ultimate bulldog and the guy you want on the mound when your season is on the line.

Those who have followed Strasburg throughout his whole career, though, know this transformation didn't just happen last fall. It had been going on for a while. And if you had to pick one key moment when it really turned for the better, it probably was Game 4 of the 2017 National League Division Series.

On that cold, windy, rainy late afternoon at Wrigley Field, a physically ill Strasburg took the ball 24 hours after apparently believing he couldn't and dominated the Cubs for seven innings. That 12-strikeout performance, combined with one early manufactured run and then four more huge insurance runs on Michael A. Taylor's grand slam, allowed the Nats to stave off elimination and force a Game 5 back in D.C. the following night.

(Yes, they lost Game 5 in gut-wrenching fashion, a loss that had major ramifications for the organization moving forward, most notably Dusty Baker and Jayson Werth. But we're going to try to forget about that for this one moment in time.)

MASN re-aired the full broadcast of Game 4 on Thursday evening. Having never actually seen it myself, I was really interested to watch the game and re-live what to that point was arguably the best postseason game this organization had ever played.

It didn't disappoint.

The backstory of this game was the bizarre and often confusing previous 24 hours, beginning with the announcement that the game was being postponed because of rain in Chicago. That one-day postponement seemingly worked in the Nationals' favor, because it would now allow Strasburg to make the start on normal rest instead of Tanner Roark, who had been all set to pitch the originally scheduled game.

But then Baker shocked the entire press conference room at Wrigley with his announcement that Roark would still pitch. He didn't immediately attribute that decision to Strasburg's illness but rather to the fact Strasburg had thrown a bullpen session earlier that day in anticipation of starting Game 5. (He hadn't actually done that; he only played catch in the outfield, leaving him available for Game 4.)

Baker did finally mention that Strasburg was "under the weather" and then gave a long and rambling answer that inexplicably involved mold in the team's downtown Chicago hotel. It was baffling.

Strasburg-Gray-NLDS-Sidebar.jpgOnly later in the evening did club officials clarify that Strasburg was seriously ill, and that's why he wouldn't be able to pitch as hoped. By that point, the entire sports world had made up its mind, many folks now believing Strasburg wasn't willing to pitch when less than 100 percent, even if his team's season was on the line. For those who believed the longstanding narrative about "The Orchid," who needed conditions to be exactly perfect in order to pitch well, this was the ultimate confirmation.

But then Strasburg, who was on antibiotics, woke up the next morning feeling considerably better, called pitching coach Mike Maddux and said he wanted the ball. Word began to trickle out, and the announcement became official a few hours before first pitch.

To say Strasburg faced pressure that afternoon was an understatement. This one start - unfairly, it should be noted - was now going to serve as a referendum on his entire career.

So how did he do? He was absolutely brilliant. He faced only one scenario that could be referred to as a jam: two on and two out in the bottom of the second. All told, he tossed seven scoreless innings, scattering three hits and two walks while striking out 12. That included the last three batters he faced (Ben Zobrist, Addison Russell and Jason Heyward), all via changeups.

Not that seven scoreless innings was a guarantee of ultimate success, though. Entering that day, the Nationals had a knack for completely wasting great postseason pitching performances. Strasburg, Max Scherzer and Jordan Zimmermann had collectively started seven postseason games for the Nationals from 2012-17, combined to post a 2.79 ERA and seen their team go 0-7.

Strasburg needed run support. And he got it that afternoon in Chicago. The Nats eked out one early run on a Trea Turner double (his first hit during a miserable series), a wild pitch and an error by Russell on Ryan Zimmerman's chopper to short.

They seemed determined to see if that one run would hold up, squandering several opportunities to add on against a fatigued and wild Jake Arrieta. But then they finally got the big blow they needed late against the Cubs bullpen to extend the lead: Taylor, who would go on to enjoy even more October success, somehow sent a Wade Davis fastball into the teeth of a vicious wind that knocked every other ball down throughout the game and into the basket that hovers over the right-center field wall for a grand slam.

Ryan Madson and Sean Doolittle took care of the rest and ensured there would be a Game 5 at Nationals Park the following night. But the star of the day was Strasburg, who in the span of 24 hours went from having his guts called into question by doubters to being lauded for his gutsy pitching performance.

Yes, the Nats would lose Game 5 and the narrative about their postseason failures would only grow. But on that cold, wet October day at Wrigley, Strasburg made sure his personal narrative had forever been changed, two years before he and his team would finally hoist their first trophy.

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