After a his­toric day, time to write new his­tory

The Washington Post - - SPORTS - Barry Svr­luga

So, once again, a fifth game in the first round. To­tally can’t han­dle it. Wouldn’t have it any other way.

There has been no more tu­mul­tuous, en­thralling, ridicu­lous, newsy day in the his­tory of the Washington Na­tion­als than Wednesday, Oct. 11, 2017. Ma­jor League Base­ball an­nounced it would move the Mon­treal Ex­pos to the na­tion’s cap­i­tal 4,760 days ear­lier. Comb through them all — Li­van Her­nan­dez throw­ing the first D.C. pitch in 33 years, Ryan Zim­mer­man walk­ing off the At­lanta Braves to chris­ten a new ball­park, Bryce Harper be­ing drafted, Jor­dan Zim­mer­mann throw­ing a no-hit­ter, Max Scherzer strik­ing out 20 — and noth­ing com­pares to this chilly fall day in the Windy City.

Were there self-in­flicted wounds on the part of the Na­tion­als in how they han­dled the Stephen Stras­burg-

won’t-pitch-oh-wait-a-minute-now-he-will-de­ba­cle? Sure. Of course. Do they mat­ter now, after Stras­burg spent Wednesday twist­ing the Chicago Cubs into so many pret­zels, the au­thor of a sea­son-ex­tend­ing 5-0 vic­tory in Game 4 of this National League Di­vi­sion Se­ries? Nope. Not re­ally.

“Down 2-1,” sec­ond base­man Daniel Mur­phy said, “your en­tire thought process is to get it back home to D.C.”

That they did. So what mat­ters is that Stras­burg took the ball, and more than de­liv­ered. His seven-in­ning, three-hit, 12strike­out per­for­mance not only forced Thursday’s Game 5 — to take place back at Na­tion­als Park — but it all but cer­tainly al­tered his rep­u­ta­tion, which just 24 hours ear­lier seemed be­yond sal­va­tion. What mat­ters is that an en­tire fan base — and even a club­house — that once won­dered about him now has all the an­swers to their ques­tions.

What mat­ters is that Stras­burg — with the sig­nif­i­cant help of Michael A. Taylor’s eighth-in­ning grand slam, which some­how sliced through a pul­ver­iz­ing breeze off Lake Michi­gan — pushed the sea­son be­yond a toomuch-to-take Wednesday and into what could be a fran­chisechang­ing Thursday.

So we’re here again. The Nats have twice hosted such af­fairs be­fore, and the wounds those games have opened — against St. Louis in 2012, and against the Los Angeles Dodgers last year — fes­ter still. The Nats, who wrote their own his­tory and have en­dured that pain, now must welcome an­other stroll through the gant­let.

“This is what you play for,” Zim­mer­man said. “Ev­ery­one would love to just go 11-0 and win the World Se­ries. Any­one who says they would rather not do that is ly­ing to you. That never hap­pens. This is what play­off base­ball is about. Un­for­tu­nately, in the past, we haven’t been able to come through. But that’s in the past.”

Maybe the drama is past, too. Maybe.

If the Na­tion­als had lost Wednesday — and thus, had an­other sea­son with the great­est hopes pos­si­ble end in ex­cru­ci­at­ing dis­ap­point­ment — there would have been the taste of old, stale cof­fee in the mouths of fans and play­ers alike headed into an­other early win­ter. The Nats, and how they han­dled Stras­burg’s sit­u­a­tion — first an­nounc­ing Tan­ner Roark would pitch be­cause Stras­burg was sick, but then ap­par­ently dis­cov­er­ing a re­cu­per­ated Stras­burg on Wednesday morn­ing — be­came the talk of the sport for one fran­tic news cy­cle, and not in a pos­i­tive way.

They made it easy to crit­i­cize how they pre­sented their choices. Stras­burg’s for­ti­tude was openly ques­tioned by for­mer ma­jor lea­guers who now serve as tele­vi­sion an­a­lysts. Shoot, I typed out more than 1,200 words ask­ing, ba­si­cally: What’s going on? But the sport was abuzz. “If you have a com­mu­ni­ca­tion break­down any­where,” said In­di­ans Man­ager Terry Fran­cona, asked about the is­sue be­fore his own team’s fifth game against the Yan­kees in Cleve­land, “you’re prob­a­bly going to em­bar­rass your­self.”

Yet Stras­burg pro­vided the balm, all but oblit­er­at­ing the em­bar­rass­ment. Within hours of blis­ter­ing crit­i­cism he nei­ther heard nor cared about, he lifted him­self and his team at once. How good was he? “Whoo,” Mur­phy said. “Man.” What else to say?

What’s im­por­tant: Stras­burg af­forded this fran­chise nine more in­nings. How will they play out? Buckle up.

“Is Gio going to­mor­row?” Mur­phy asked, gen­uinely. Roark, of course, could pitch. But so could the lefty, Gio Gon­za­lez, who started Game 2 — the Na­tion­als’ other vic­tory in the se­ries. So, Daniel, we don’t yet know. “All right,” he said. “Cheers. We’ll find out when they an­nounce it. Game 5, we’ll take it.”

The Na­tion­als — and pri­mar­ily Gen­eral Man­ager Mike Rizzo, Man­ager Dusty Baker and pitch­ing coach Mike Mad­dux — had some se­ri­ous strat­egy to think through on the flight home. Who will start Game 5?

“I’m not sure,” Baker said. “I’m not try­ing to be coy at all, be­cause that was the theme of the day with Stras.”

And, col­lec­tively, we’re all try­ing to move on from that.

There is an ar­gu­ment that Gon­za­lez, who has not made a re­lief ap­pear­ance since 2009, is the ob­vi­ous choice to start, with Roark be­hind him. But, if Roark starts, Cubs Man­ager Joe Mad­don would prob­a­bly start his left-handed-hit­ting lineup — fea­tur­ing slug­ger Kyle Sch­war­ber — and Baker would be able, then, to in­sert Gon­za­lez in the mid­dle in­nings and force Mad­don to bench some of his best play­ers. Oh, the strat­egy of it all. The Na­tion­als, though, would ap­pear to have the — don’t say it, don’t say it, don’t say it — ad­van­tage. Against Kyle Hen­dricks, you say? He’s the guy who put the Nats in this se­ries­long slump to be­gin with, what with his seven in­nings of two-hit ball in Game 1. Even now, with the se­ries tied, the Nats are hit­ting .130. How does this group have an ad­van­tage — against him?

“I felt like this game gave us a lit­tle en­ergy,” Taylor said.

“Mo­men­tum’s huge,” said short­stop Trea Turner, who fi­nally got on base.

But con­sider what the Nats can throw at the Cubs, and what the Cubs can’t throw at the Nats. Start Gon­za­lez or Roark. Go to the other at the first sign of trou­ble. Plus, Max Scherzer — he of the two Cy Young Awards and the no-hit stuff — had told Baker he was avail­able for one in­ning Wednesday. He didn’t throw it. Couldn’t he give two Thursday?

You know who couldn’t give two in re­lief of Hen­dricks? Cubs lefty Jon Lester, who was bril­liant in a 32/3-in­ning stint in Game 4. But he’s spent, a weapon no longer.

And the Cubs’ “best” re­liev­ers are now shaky, too. Would Mad­don re­ally turn to Carl Ed­wards Jr. again? Ed­wards coughed up Harper’s se­ries-al­ter­ing homer in Game 2. On Wednesday, he faced two bat­ters and walked them both, set­ting up Taylor’s grand slam — which came off closer Wade Davis. The world champs, they have chinks in the ar­mor, and they’re sig­nif­i­cant. So Game 5, again. “There’s only a cou­ple of us on this team that have been to the top,” veteran out­fielder Jayson Werth said. “I want us to ex­pe­ri­ence it. I want to get to the top. . . . To­mor­row’s a big day. We’ve got to win to­mor­row.”

Do that, move on to the 4,762nd day in Na­tion­als his­tory, and the in­san­ity of Wednesday will be over­shad­owed not only by Stras­burg’s per­for­mance, but by some­thing more im­por­tant: A step this fran­chise has never taken be­fore.

PHO­TOS BY JOHN MCDON­NELL/THE WASHINGTON POST

The best ef­forts of Cubs right fielder Ian Happ were not enough as Michael A. Taylor’s eighth-in­ning grand slam left the field of play. The teams will play a de­ci­sive Game 5 on Thursday night at Na­tion­als Park.

After the Nats said a day ear­lier that he wouldn’t be able to pitch in Game 4 be­cause of an ill­ness, Stephen Stras­burg did start and thrived.

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