Stephen Strasburg gave Washington everything he had, and it was more than enough.
So much for all those questions about heart and character.
Strasburg shook off an illness and pitched seven dominant innings, Michael A. Taylor hit a late grand slam and the Nationals beat the Chicago Cubs 5-0 on Wednesday to send their NL Division Series to a decisive Game 5.
“I just focused on one pitch at a time and going as long as I could,” Strasburg said.
Moments after Sean Doolittle closed out Strasburg’s first career playoff win, the focus shifted to the final game of the series in Washington tonight.
Kyle Hendricks starts for the World Series champion Cubs after throwing seven sharp innings in a 3-0 victory over Strasburg in Game 1.
Washington manager Dusty Baker was non-committal when asked about his starter, with Gio Gonzalez and Tanner Roark the most likely candidates.
“You know, whoever it is, I hope they pitch like Stras did today,” Baker said.
Strasburg got sick after his terrific performance in the playoff opener on Friday, and the Nationals had planned to go with Roark even after a persistent rain washed out Game 4 on Tuesday. That led to a flurry of comments and criticism about whether the ace had the right stuff to pitch in big moments.
But Strasburg felt better when he woke up Wednesday and told Baker he wanted the ball. That was all Baker needed to hear.
“I could see the focus and determination in his eyes, you know what I mean, when he came in the office and we talked to him,” the manager said. “You know, he’s a man of few words, but the words he said, you know, gave us every indication that he was ready.”
Standing tall as clouds of mist rolled through Wrigley Field, Strasburg struck out 12, allowed three hits and walked two. The No. 1 overall pick in the 2009 draft has 22 Ks in 14 innings in the series, allowing only a pair of unearned runs in the sixth in the opener.
“I like to think that any game that I pitch is the most important game,” Strasburg said. “That’s just how I tried to go into Game 4, and now we get a chance for a Game 5.”
Chicago wasted a gutsy performance from Jake Arrieta and solid relief by Game 2 starter Jon Lester in its first home playoff loss since Game 4 of the World Series last year. NL MVP Kris Bryant struck out four times, and the defending champs went 0 for 6 with runners in scoring position.
“We just have to be offensively a little bit better tomorrow,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon said. “They have been really good. We have been really good. Listen, they got a grand slam. Otherwise, it’s kind of like the same game both sides.”
Arrieta walked five in four innings in his return from a hamstring injury, but limited Washington to an unearned run and two hits. Lester got the Cubs all the way to the eighth, picking off Ryan Zimmerman before departing after Daniel Murphy’s two-out single.
But Chicago’s bullpen faltered from there. Carl Edwards Jr. walked two in a row and threw ball one to Taylor before he was replaced by Wade Davis. Taylor then drove a 1-1 pitch into the basket overhanging the brick wall in right field for his first career homer in the playoffs.
“I was kind of numb, just running around the bases,” Taylor said. “Honestly, I didn’t think it was going to get out the way the wind was blowing in.”
Ryan Madson worked the eighth and Doolittle finished the three-hitter, giving the NL East champions a chance to avenge years of playoff heartache.
Washington also made it to the playoffs in 2012, 2014 and 2016 and fell in the first round each time, including five-game losses to St. Louis in 2012 and Los Angeles last season.
“Once you get out there, that stuff doesn’t really matter,” Taylor said. “What we did last year doesn’t help or hurt us once we’re in between the lines. We’ll just go out there and play our game.”
The Nationals jumped in front in the third, taking advantage of a Chicago error for the second straight game. Trea Turner doubled with one out for his first hit of the series and advanced on a wild pitch. Jayson Werth struck out looking before Arrieta walked Bryce Harper, putting runners on the corners.
Zimmerman followed with a slow roller to shortstop. Addison Russell charged the ball, but he couldn’t bring it in.
It was Chicago’s sixth error of the series, and reliever Brian Duensing picked up another one on an errant throw in the ninth. Left fielder Kyle Schwarber committed two errors on one play in Game 3, setting up Washington’s only run in a 2-1 loss.
“It’s two heavyweights going at it,” Lester said. “We’re going to the last round. We’re going to figure it out. We’ve got Game 5 so it should be exciting TV. It should be exciting in our clubhouse.”