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Takeaways From The Nationals’ NLDS Game 4 Win At The Cubs

Observations from and analysis of the Nats’ NLDS Game 4 win at the Cubs

 

 

NLDS Game 4: Nationals win at the Cubs 5-0 to even the series at two on Wednesday (Oct. 11, 2017)

 

1. Stephen Strasburg was sensational for the second time in four games in this series.  Pitching off being ill and off a drama-filled previous 24 hours, he tossed seven scoreless innings with 12 strikeouts versus three hits and two walks on 106 pitches.  Strasburg was dominant, striking out the Cubs’ best batter, Kris Bryant, three times.  Strasburg had three pitches (fastball, curveball, changeup) working for a second start in this series.  His strikeouts of Bryant and Anthony Rizzo in the bottom of the first came on curveballs; Strasburg struck out the side in the bottom of the third on a fastball (Jake Arrieta), a curveball (Jon Jay) and a changeup (Bryant); Strasburg had three more swinging strikeouts in the bottom of the fourth on three changeups and struck out the side swinging in the bottom of the seventh on three changeups.  Strasburg became just the third pitcher in National League history with multiple 10-strikeout games in the same postseason series (Bob Gibson in the 1967 and ’68 World Series and Sany Koufax in the 1965 World Series).

 

Washington Nationals starting pitcher Stephen Strasburg throws during the seventh inning of Game 4 of baseball’s National League Division Series against the Chicago Cubs, Wednesday, Oct. 11, 2017, in Chicago. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

 

2. This game concluded one of the wildest, most-bizarre and avoidable 24 hours in Nats history. Dusty Baker announced on Tuesday evening after Game 4 had been postponed due to rain that Tanner Roark still would start Game 4 as opposed to Stephen Strasburg, even though he would have been pitching on four days’ rest.  Dusty said that Strasburg was sick in an odd, disjointed press conference that included the manager either misspeaking or outright lying about when Strasburg had thrown a bullpen session (he said Tuesday; the reality was Monday) and blaming the change in weather, hotel air conditioning and Chicago mold for multiple Nats players being under the weather.  What followed was avalanche of both local and national criticism for Strasburg being soft unlike few things you’ll ever see.  And then came the news on Wednesday morning that Strasburg was feeling better and would start Game 4.  A few thoughts:

  • You can not convince me that the criticism from fans and media didn’t influence Strasburg pitching in Game 4.  Mike Rizzo in a press conference earl Wednesday afternoon said that Strasburg doesn’t care what the media says.  Sure.  Strasburg justifiably got harpooned for 15-plus hours.  Maybe he himself decided to man up.  Maybe the organization applied pressure.  Maybe his agent, Scot Boras, got to Strasburg.  Whatever the case, the criticism mattered.
  • Rizzo in that press conference early Wednesday afternoon gave details on Strasburg’s illness, saying that he had been dealing with sinusitis and had been receiving IV fluids and an aggressive treatment of antibiotics.  Why these details weren’t provided by Dusty at his post-rainout press conference on Tuesday evening is incredible.  Dusty left you thinking that Strasburg had a cold; the phrase that Dusty used was “under the weather.”  Rizzo painted a picture of a guy who was dealing with something beyond “the sniffles,” as ESPN’s Adnan Virk said of Strasburg on ESPN’s Baseball Tonight on Tuesday.  Dusty’s lack of detail and misspeaking/lying about the bullpen session did Strasburg no favors.
  • So is Strasburg soft?  Is he the type of pitcher for whom everything must be just right in order to feel comfortable?  This issue is not going away.  But he obviously earned back a ton of goodwill with his performance in Game 4.

3. As was the case in the Nats’ Game 2 win, the offense was asleep until a big eighth inning fueled by the home run.  Michael A. Taylor smashed a two-out grand slam off the Cubs’ ace reliever, Wade Davis, to give the Nats a 5-0 lead.  The grand slam was the first in Nats/Expos postseason history and increased the Nats’ win probability from 76.7 percent to 98 percent per Fangraphs.  No Nat improved more as a batter this season than Taylor.  He entered 2017 with a career OPS+ of 72 but posted a 105 OPS+ this season.  He has had the best at-bats of any Nat in this series according to TBS’ Ron Darling.  Seeing Taylor blast the grand slam (and off Davis) into the netting just beyond the right-field wall was tremendous.

4. Two other interesting aspects of the Nats’ four-run eighth in Game 4:

  • The inning started off in terrible fashion against Jon Lester.  Bryce Harper struck out on four pitches.  And then Ryan Zimmerman, off working a seven-pitch walk off being down 1-2, inexplicably got picked off at first base by Lester, who has had the yips for years when it comes to throwing to first base.  The initial safe ruling was overturned via replay to a tremendous pop at Wrigley Field.  Getting picked off by Lester is like losing a best-dressed contest to a sports writer – you should feel incredible shame.
  • Joe Maddon pulled Lester after a Daniel Murphy two-out single in favor of Carl Edwards Jr., but he did not have it at all.  Edwards, who seemed to have trouble gripping the ball on what was a rainy and misty day in Chicago, threw a wild pitch that advanced Murphy to second and then walked Anthony Rendon and Matt Wieters.  Rendon’s walk was tremendous, as he worked a nine-pitch walk off being down 1-2.  And the Wieters’ walk was inexcusable on the Edwards’ part, as Wieters was the worst-hitting catcher in the majors this season and yet was walked on five pitches.

5. As good as the Nats’ offense was in the four-run eighth, the offense still was mostly really bad for a fourth time in four games in this series.  A major bright spot, though, was the Nats working nine walks to go with the team’s mere five hits.  Five of the walks came off Jake Arrieta, who threw 90 pitches in lasting for just four innings in his first start since Sept. 26 due to an injured right hamstring.  Working two walks was Trea Turner, who also had a double in his first good game in this series off going 0-for-12 with five strikeouts over the first three games.

6. Dusty Baker improved to 4-8 in playoff games facing elimination.  Here is how he did from a #strategery standpoint.

  • Dusty shuffled the lineup for this game.  I was not a fan of the changes.  My biggest problem was with moving Jayson Werth up from no. 6 to no. 2.  Putting aside that Werth shouldn’t even still be starting, how do you put him up at no. 2?  Werth went 0-for-4 with two strikeouts, including striking out looking on seven pitches with Trea Turner on third and one out in the top of the third and striking out looking on five pitches with the bases loaded and two outs in the top of the fifth.  Have you noticed who the Cubs bat in their no. 2 spot?  Their best batter – Kris Bryant.
  • Dusty’s new lineup, which was actually a lineup used quite a bit during the regular season, also included Anthony Rendon being dropped from no. 3 to no. 6 and Matt Wieters remaining in the no. 7 spot ahead of Michael A. Taylor at no. 8.  I don’t like either scenario for reasons I have given many times.  Hopefully Taylor’s eighth-inning grand slam and walk in this game will have him (finally) ahead of Wieters for Game 5.  But I’m not holding my breath.
  • Dusty decided to pinch-hit for Stephen Strasburg prior to Taylor’s eighth-inning grand slam that increased the Nats’ lead from 1-0 to 5-0.  I was fine with this.  Strasburg had gone seven innings and 106 pitches.  He had thrown 100 or more pitches in a game just twice since July 18 coming into this game.  He had been dealing with illness.  The Nats have the Law Firm and Matt Albers (i.e., the Core Four) in their bullpen.  Pulling Strasburg was the right call, even though it became a moot point.
  • There was some thought that Dusty actually should have pinch-hit for Taylor with Adam Lind in the plate appearance that resulted in the eighth-inning grand slam.  Wade Davis is a righty, and the lefty Lind crushed righties during the regular season (.898 OPS).  But Dusty did the right thing in sticking with Taylor, as a) Davis was far more effective versus lefties than righties during the regular season (.493 OPS allowed versus .690) and b) Taylor, while better versus lefty pitching, wasn’t bad against righties (.794 OPS).

7. Dusty Baker, perhaps learning a lesson from the Strasburg Illness debacle, did not announce a starting pitcher for Game 5 after the Game 4 win.  The Nats have a number of options.  Tanner Roark has yet to pitch in this series.  Gio Gonzalez could pitch on four days’ rest.  Max Scherzer is available on two days’ rest.  I would start Roark given how poor Gio has pitched over his last seven starts (24 earned runs in 37 1/3 innings, good for a 5.79 ERA).  But here’s the thing: I would make this a bullpenning game.  I wouldn’t have any pitcher face a batter more than once.  So I would start with Roark, have him go through the Cubs’ lineup one time and then bring in Scherzer.  And then I would do the same with him and then go to the Core Four with the exception perhaps of Ryan Madson, who gave up a walk and a hit-by-pitch in looking out of sorts during a 27-pitch eighth inning in Game 4 (although that did end up being a scoreless eighth).  But Sean Doolittle tossed a perfect ninth on just 12 pitches, so he should be fine.  This is an all-hands-on-deck use-every-weapon-you-got kind of game.  It is the biggest game since the franchise moved to D.C.   The smart approach is the bullpening approach.

 

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