Stephen Strasburg shines in surprise start as Nats force Game 5 with Cubs

CHICAGO -- Stephen Strasburg was sick, all right. Sick as in really good.

Strasburg’s performance against the Chicago Cubs was so sick that nobody could’ve seen it coming. The Washington Nationals right-hander, who was pumped full of antibiotics and IV fluids so he could take the mound after initially being ruled out Tuesday due to flu-like symptoms, was even better than he was in his dominating, series-opening outing, when he set a 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 victory. The victory evened up the National League Division Series and forced a decisive fifth game on Thursday in the nation’s capital. Should the Nationals win Game 5, it would mark the first time in four tries since moving to D.C. in 2005 that they advanced in the playoffs. The fact that they have a chance to do so is a direct result of Strasburg’s exploits.

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 top 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 Strasburg down prior to 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 starting pitchers in the game. On Wednesday, he was about as fragile as Kevlar.

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 had thrown in the series opener. Still, manager Dusty Baker sent his starter up to hit to lead off the top of the seventh inning of a one-run game, a testament to just how filthy Strasburg was. The 29-year-old then went out and rewarded his skipper by striking out the side in the bottom half. In doing so, he became just the third pitcher in history to tally double-digit K’s twice in a single playoff series, joining Hall of Famers Bob Gibson and Sandy Koufax. More importantly, he put the Nationals in position to advance to their first ever LCS. It was the kind of epic, illness-infested showing that harkened back to Jordan’s Game 5 heroics in the 1997 NBA Finals, an effort that, like Strasburg’s on Wednesday, put his team one game away from taking the series.

Call it the Flu-Like Symptoms Game.

“He came in the other day, and his face was the color of that carpet,” said Bryce Harper, looking down at the green rug he stood on as he spoke to reporters following Washington’s big win. “For him to be able to cowboy up tonight and do his job, go out there, shows how much of a great teammate he is.”

It also shows the power of modern medicine. When Strasburg went to sleep Tuesday, he thought he had little to no chance of posting up on Wednesday.

“It wasn’t much, to be honest,” he said when asked what kind of odds he gave himself to start Game 4. “Luckily the new antibiotics they gave me seemed to give me just enough to feel like that I could strap it on.”

So he picked up the phone and called pitching coach Mike Maddux and told him he was good to go. Then he hopped on the first team bus for Wrigley Field and marched directly into Maddux’s office.

“Just gimme the ball,” Strasburg said.

“You got it,” his coach told him. “You got it.”

Once Maddux gave Strasburg the ball, he had trouble getting it back. “I was hoping we'd get a good five [innings] out of him, but he just kept rolling and kept rolling and showed no signs of weakness.”

By the time Strasburg finally forked over the ball after seven series-altering frames -- shortly before Michael Taylor salted the game away with an eighth-inning grand slam that somehow cut through the stiff Wrigleyville wind -- he had thrown 106 pitches, tied for the second-most by any starter in a single game this postseason.

“We got a lot out of him,” Maddux said. “I think we got every last quality pitch.”

A lot of those quality pitches were changeups. In fact, the 32 changes Strasburg threw in Game 4 were tied for the most he has thrown in any of his 187 career starts, including both regular season and playoffs. “If it’s working, you want to lean on it,” said Strasburg, who leaned on the offering so hard that he registered eight punchouts with it, two more than he’d ever had in a game.

“Just vintage,” Maddux said of how Strasburg baffled Chicago’s hitters with his off-speed stuff. “That's what he does.”

What Strasburg doesn’t do, at least not according to public perception, is battle through physical adversity. But now that Flu Game II is in the books, and he has carried his team into Game 5 and planted himself firmly into the NLDS MVP conversation, maybe that perception has changed. Who knows? Maybe it has even disappeared.

“Just a warrior,” said Harper, choosing a word that few, if any, Nationals fans would have ever considered using to describe Strasburg. After Game 4, they might reconsider.

“Great game for the Nats,” Maddux said. “Probably a better game for Stephen.”