CHICAGO — The raindrops fell like gifts from the heavens for the Nationals. Facing elimination, and badly in need of a break, Tuesday’s postponement should have been it.
Pushing Game 4 to Wednesday afternoon meant that Stephen Strasburg, who handcuffed the Cubs in the opener of this National League Division Series, could have displaced Tanner Roark and started on regular rest.
But in an announcement that was as stunning as it was confusing, manager Dusty Baker said Tuesday that the Nationals will stick with their original plan, sending Roark to the mound with the season on the line.
“We have full confidence in Tanner,” said Baker, who also indicated that Strasburg was suffering from a previously undisclosed illness.
Baker tried framing Tuesday’s rainout as a break for the Nationals, adding that Strasburg isn’t the only one feeling sick in recent days.
“So, this day actually comes as a plus for our team,” said Baker, though it seems the Cubs ultimately appear to be the beneficiaries. “A lot of my team is under the weather with the change of weather and the air conditioning in the hotel and the air conditioning here. It’s just this time of the year for mold around Chicago — I think it’s mold. I mean, I have it, too.”
Roark, 31, went 13-11 with a 4.67 ERA in 32 starts. The body of work pales in comparison to that of the 29-year-old Strasburg, who finished 15-4 with a 2.52 ERA. That regular-season success spilled over into Game 1 of the NLDS, which the Nationals lost despite a masterful performance by Strasburg.
In a 3-0 win, the Cubs managed two unearned runs in seven innings against Strasburg, who pitched 6 2⁄3 no-hit innings before being burned by an Anthony Rendon error that stoked the rally. Now, Strasburg would pitch in Game 5, though the Nationals must get by the Cubs’ Jake Arrieta to force a deciding game in Washington.
Miscommunication only added to the confusion.
Rainy weather had been in the forecast Monday night and the Nationals were aware of the ramifications. It is standard operating procedure for teams to adjust schedules in case games are postponed. In this case, that would have meant having Strasburg hold off on throwing a planned bullpen session on Tuesday, thus preserving the option to pitch him on Wednesday.
But Baker initially told reporters that Strasburg threw a bullpen Tuesday, effectively keeping him from pitching Wednesday.
“We’re all creatures of habit,” Baker said.
Only later did the Nationals say that Baker misspoke, with the club insisting that Strasburg actually threw his bullpen session Monday while contending that illness had left Strasburg’s endurance compromised. Thus, he was taken out of contention to pitch with the season on the line Wednesday.
Of course, Baker did not sound enthused about the idea. When asked if he would have considered using Strasburg on Wednesday had he not been ill, the manager brushed aside the suggestion.
“I don’t know,” Baker said. “We didn’t think about that.”