CHICAGO - The postponement of Game 4 of the National League Division Series appeared to favor the Nationals, who suddenly had the option of sending Stephen Strasburg back to the mound for a must-win game on normal rest.
But when manager Dusty Baker entered the makeshift press conference room at Wrigley Field this evening to provide what seemed like an obvious answer to a simple question, he wound up creating confusion and dissatisfaction among many with his eight-word reply: "We're going to go as planned with Tanner."
Yes, Tanner Roark, the originally scheduled Game 4 starter, will take the mound Wednesday afternoon at 4:08 p.m. Eastern time, charged with keeping the Nationals' season alive. Strasburg will not, left to wait and see if his team can pull out a victory over the Cubs and force a decisive Game 5 on Thursday in Washington, a game he would start.
It was a shocking announcement from Baker, one that immediately left the entire baseball world scratching its collective heads and trying to figure out what led to the decision.
Turns out this is a more complicated story than it initially appeared.
The Nationals, knowing since Monday that today's forecast was dicey, did begin to make preparations for Strasburg to start a potentially postponed Game 4 on Wednesday, according to sources familiar with the decision. But the right-hander fell ill at some point after the club arrived in Chicago, did not go through his normal prep work in advance of a start and has not yet recovered, sources said.
Baker said during his press conference this evening that Strasburg had thrown off the bullpen mound today - that would not normally be done the day before a pitcher starts a game - but a club spokeswoman later said the manager misspoke and that Strasburg threw a bullpen session Monday (which would be typical prep for a start two days later). The pitcher's endurance level, according to the spokeswoman, "is down" and the teams "feels Tanner gives us the best chance to win Game 4 under these circumstances."
Thus, what at first glance appeared to be a pure baseball decision made solely by the manager was more complex than that, with multiple people (Baker, pitching coach Mike Maddux, general manager Mike Rizzo and Strasburg himself) involved in the discussion.
In the end, Strasburg's less-than-perfect health the last few days superseded the Nationals' obvious motivation to try to get a pitcher who allowed two unearned runs in seven innings in Game 1 back to the mound for a win-or-else game for his team.
So it will be Roark, scheduled all along to pitch Game 4, taking the mound late Wednesday afternoon against Jake Arrieta, charged with authoring a start that gives the Nationals a chance to keep their season alive. The Chicago-area native will have plenty of backup, with both Game 2 starter Gio Gonzalez and Game 3 starter Max Scherzer likely available for some amount of work out of the bullpen, along with the seven regular relievers on the NLDS roster.
"We've got full confidence in Tanner," Baker said.
Strasburg, meanwhile, will be held back for a potential Game 5 on Thursday at Nationals Park. Whether that game becomes necessary depends entirely on what happens Wednesday at Wrigley Field.