CHICAGO — During his seven-inning tour de force on Wednesday, Nationals star Stephen Strasburg redefined his image, transforming himself from America’s most delicate orchid to Willis Reed, Michael Jordan and Kirk Gibson rolled into one.
While most of his teammates wore layers, Strasburg took the mound in short sleeves, even though he’d been deemed too ill to start just a day before. Beneath gray skies, with mist swirling overhead, he attacked the persistent questions about his toughness. His fastball crackled at 96 mph. His changeups skidded like bald tires on an icy road, making it the weapon that brought most of his strikeouts.
Because of it, the Nationals stunned the Cubs, 5-0, forcing a winner-take-all Game 5 on Thursday in Washington to decide this National League Division Series.
“Games like this, you have to go out there and give it everything you have, whatever it is,” said Strasburg, who used a cold, damp and dreary day as the backdrop to his vivid masterpiece.
In seven shutout innings, he broke his own single-game postseason franchise record with 12 strikeouts, even though he pitched with a 1-0 advantage behind an unearned run.
The Nationals could not truly breathe until Michael A. Taylor’s eighth-inning grand slam off Cubs closer Wade Davis, who entered mid at-bat and had allowed just one grand slam in his entire career.
By the time Taylor’s drive landed in the basket over the ivy in rightfield, Strasburg had finished proving that he is not the personification of the coddled baseball millennial, a label affixed to him like a scarlet letter when he was infamously shut down before the postseason in 2012.
“Steven wants to pitch,” Nationals first baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. “He’s always wanted to pitch.”
Now, for the third time since 2012, the Nationals have pushed their season to the final game of the NLDS. For the first time, they hope to win.
The Cubs will send Kyle Hendricks to the mound while the Nationals will choose between Tanner Roark or Gio Gonzalez, with two-time Cy Young Award winner Max Scherzer available in relief.
The 18-hour referendum on Strasburg’s tenacity began on Tuesday, when a rainout made it possible for the Nationals to bump the scheduled starter Roark in favor of Strasburg, who would go on regular rest. But manager Dusty Baker announced that Roark would keep the assignment because Strasburg was under the weather. Baker blamed mold.
The confusion intensified when Baker misspoke, saying that Strasburg had thrown a bullpen on Tuesday. It would have been a particularly galling mistake, one that would have prevented a start on Wednesday, Later, team officials said the bullpen was thrown on Monday.
The miscommunication created room for scrutiny, and later in the evening, a USA TODAY report citing a source said that Strasburg had asked out of the start because of his illness. By Wednesday morning, most of the Nationals’ brain trust awoke still assuming that the Illinois-native Roark would be pitching with his team’s fate on the line.
Strasburg had other ideas, according to general manager Mike Rizzo, who took the podium before Game 4 to lay out a clear timeline.
Strasburg had been ill since his last start, developing flu-like symptoms that left his endurance compromised. He required an IV and antibiotics. It was that diminished version of Strasburg that the Nationals pushed aside for Roark. But it was Strasburg who wanted to pitch, Rizzo said, with the Nationals deciding he wasn’t in condition to do so.
“It just seemed to suck the life out of me every single day,” Strasburg said of his illness.
As the team buses idled in traffic on Tuesday night, on the way to a new hotel because the rainout forced a change in accommodations, Strasburg gave himself only a slim chance of pitching. His new antibiotics had yet to kick in. His only chance would come with an early night’s sleep.
When he awoke on Wednesday, things changed. Strasburg phoned Rizzo then went into Baker’s office to declare himself ready, bolstered by the change in the dosage of his medications.
“I’m feeling a whole lot better and I want the ball,” Baker said, relaying the message from his pitcher.
Word trickled out slowly. Other Nationals players found out around noon. A few hours later, it was a remarkable reality.
“He came in the other day and his face was about the color of that carpet,” Bryce Harper said, pointing at the artificial turf of the batting tunnel, the same space that Strasburg would later use to warm himself between innings.
Fans packed a chilly and misty Wrigley Field, with some bringing surgical masks to mock Strasburg, a nod to the mold that Baker invoked the day before. None of it worked.
Whether it was obligation or shame, motivation mattered little by the end. The Cubs finished with three hits against Strasburg, who has turned the NLDS into a showcase. His work in two starts in this series: no earned runs, 14 innings, 22 strikeouts and one rehabbed image.
“Not to you guys, no,” he said, when asked if he had something to prove. “No, you guys create the drama.”
Whatever its origin, Strasburg squashed that drama, seemingly for good.
Stephen Strasburg’s pitching line: