He protected a 1-0 lead after Washington scored on a two-out fielding error by Cubs shortstop Addison Russell in the top of the third. Jake Arrieta started for the Cubs, and Jon Lester came on to pitch several innings as Manager Joe Maddon tried to keep it a one-run game.
He succeeded for a while, but thing went awry when he took out Lester with a runner on and two outs in the eighth. To get the last out, Maddon turned to the struggling Carl Edwards Jr., who walked two batters to load the bases and then threw an errant ball one to the next hitter, center fielder Michael Taylor.
So out went Edwards and in came the Cubs’ closer, Wade Davis.
But Davis, too, was off. His second offering was a fastball down the middle that Taylor lifted into the basket over the ivy in right field for a grand slam. It was only the second grand slam — and the first since 2013 — that Davis has allowed in his nine-year career, including the postseason, and it came in less-than-ideal conditions for long blasts.
That hit, in effect, decided the game, and left the Nationals headed toward a Game 5 in a first-round playoff series for the third time in the last six years. They lost the previous two — to the St. Louis Cardinals in 2012 and to the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2016.
Washington has not had a World Series champion since 1924, when its team was the Senators, not the Nationals. And since baseball returned to Washington in 2005, the Nationals have yet to advance past the first round of the postseason.
Going into Wednesday’s game, the Nationals had to contend with the self-inflicted distraction surrounding Strasburg’s condition. When Game 4 was originally rained out on Tuesday, it appeared to be a godsend for the Nationals, who could skip their originally scheduled starter, Tanner Roark, for a superior pitcher, Strasburg, on regular rest.
Instead, Nationals Manager Dusty Baker told reporters that Roark would still start the game because Strasburg was “under the weather.” But Baker also provided conflicting information about Strasburg’s preparation for the game, including when he had thrown a bullpen session. All of this led to speculation that Strasburg might have been asking out of a game that the Nationals wanted him to pitch.
On Wednesday morning, however, clues trickled out that Strsaburg might pitch after all, starting with Strasburg’s agent, Scott Boras, saying that his client felt better.
And hours before the first pitch, General Manager Mike Rizzo, in an uncommon move, addressed reporters in a room normally reserved for news conferences with players and managers.
Rizzo said Strasburg had had flulike symptoms and felt weak after throwing on Monday and that, as the Nationals were preparing to announce the Game 4 starter following the rainout on Tuesday, he spoke with Strasburg about how he felt. “He told me he wanted to take the ball,” Rizzo said. “He said, ‘I’ll give you everything I’ve got,’ but he doesn’t know how much he has.”
The Nationals concluded that a healthy Roark was a better option and made the announcement. But on Wednesday morning, they changed their mind again after Strasburg told the team he felt better.
“If I just gave it a night just to see how I’d feel, that if there was any chance, I was going to go out there,” Strasburg said after the game. “So, woke up and I was like, all right, let’s do it. So, gave them a call and went for it.”
Rizzo insisted that the Nationals had not been swayed by public criticism or internal pressure in shifting back to Strasburg. “The fact that he was much more like the real Stephen Strasburg, we felt that Stephen Strasburg gave us a much better chance to win Game 4,” Rizzo said.
Baker added: “I’d be very, very, very surprised if he got any from his teammates or any kind of peer pressure. This was a decision made by him, and then our guys came together and we decided that’s what we’re going to do.”
Which they did. And now Game 5 awaits on Thursday.
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