CHICAGO — Stephen Strasburg was so sick, he almost missed Game 4. Then he was so sick, he won Game 4.
Strasburg’s performance against the Chicago Cubs was so sick — as in ridiculously good — that nobody could’ve seen it coming. The Washington Nationals right-hander, who was pumped full of antibiotics and IV fluids just so that he could take the mound after initially being ruled out on Tuesday, was even better than he was in his dominating series-opening outing, when he set a Nats/Expos franchise record with 10 strikeouts in seven innings.
In Game 4 on Wednesday, Strasburg broke that record, striking out 12 over seven scoreless frames to lead Washington to a 5-0 win. The victory evened up the NLDS and forces a decisive fifth game in the nation’s capital on Thursday. Should the Nationals win Game 5, it would mark the first time in four tries since moving to D.C. in 2005 that they’ve advanced in the playoffs. The fact that they even have a chance of doing so is a direct result of Strasburg’s heroics.
Pitching in Chicago, the same city that celebrated an NBA title 20 years ago thanks to Michael Jordan’s infamous “Flu Game,” Strasburg authored a script that could potentially rewrite his legacy. A former No. 1 overall pick touted as the greatest college pitching prospect ever, the San Diego State product underwent Tommy John surgery in 2010. In 2012, when the Nationals reached the postseason for the first time, the team infamously shut down Strasburg before the playoffs in an effort to protect their prized hurler’s precious arm. In 2016, Strasburg missed the playoffs again when a torn pronator tendon ended his season in early September. In between, he made one postseason start (2014) and plenty of trips to the disabled list, earning him a reputation as one of the most fragile pitchers in the game. On Wednesday, he was anything but fragile.
Working in misty and blustery conditions that made Wrigley Field feel more like Soldier Field, Strasburg finished the sixth inning at 89 pitches, already eight more than he’d thrown in the opener. Still, manager Dusty Baker sent his starter up to hit for himself to lead off the top of the seventh inning of a one-run game, a testament to just how filthy Strasburg’s stuff on the mound was. The 29-year-old then went right out and rewarded his skipper by striking out the side in the bottom half. All three whiffs came on Strasburg’s changeup. A lethal weapon all season (holding hitters to a .112 batting average allowed on it, second best in MLB), the change accounted for eight punchouts in Game 4, the most of any contest in his career. Strasburg also became only the third pitcher in history to record double-digit K’s twice in a single playoff series, joining Hall of Famers Bob Gibson and Sandy Koufax.