CHICAGO - By the time Nationals outfielder Michael Taylor crossed home plate after his gargantuan grand slam in the eighth inning of Wednesday's 5-0 victory over the Cubs, fans noticeably had started fleeing to the Wrigley Field exits.
Suddenly, something odd was in the air - and not the allergens Nationals manager Dusty Baker believed weakened ace Stephen Strasburg and his teammates. A sense of uneasiness mixed with strong wind and persistent mist to create an atmosphere of uncertainty over the gloomiest day on the Cubs' 2017 calendar.
The Nationals never have advanced past the first round of the playoffs, and Baker spent a whiny off day making excuses about mold and changing hotels, yet the Cubs allowed a 97-win team to return home hopeful about making history.
You can say experience gives the Cubs an advantage Game 5 Thursday at Nationals Park but, truth is, this captivating National League Division Series has been too close to feel confident making any assumptions.
"We've been here before," Cubs manager Joe Maddon said, referring to Game 7 of the 2016 World Series.
But how did the defending champions get in this spot against a dysfunctional Nationals team that was following a familiar script to a first-round exit?
Blame it on the rain, if you wish, because postponing Game 4 until Wednesday allowed the Nationals to start Strasburg, baseball's hottest pitcher. Or simply credit Strasburg for producing a gem that altered his legacy.
A player not exactly known for having tenacity to match his elite talent came through with a clutch performance likely to change perceptions of him as a competitor. The right-hander who was expected to miss his start because of an illness again dominated, giving up three hits and striking out 12 in seven scoreless innings. That's nothing to sneeze at. Strasburg's fastball climbed as high as 96 mph, but his changeup was the pitch that made Wednesday night a sleepless one for the Cubs.
Batters never really looked close to touching Strasburg except for Addison Russell's second-inning shot that appeared headed for Waveland Avenue until a 16-mph wind reduced it to a warning-track out. Except for a Ben Zobrist double, the Cubs whiffed weakly at almost everything Strasburg threw.
How hard was it to hit Strasburg's slider, Anthony Rizzo?
"Probably like you going to 'Sluggers' (batting cage) and trying to hit," Rizzo said.
Imagine if Strasburg was healthy. Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo revealed before the game that Strasburg experienced flu symptoms bad enough to require intravenous fluids and antibiotics Tuesday. During a radio interview Wednesday morning, Rizzo said he planned on Tanner Roark starting instead of Strasburg. Rizzo's narrative was consistent with the bleak picture Baker painted Tuesday explaining Strasburg had succumbed to an illness, perhaps related to "mold in Chicago."
The Nationals' clumsy portrayal of Strasburg sounding unwilling to pitch through pain and discomfort caused an uproar in the baseball community, with everyone from David Ross to Wade Boggs openly questioning the pitcher's toughness. Perhaps the last time a professional athlete encountered such widespread national scrutiny over his intestinal fortitude, Maurice Jones-Drew was tweeting about Jay Cutler during the 2010 NFC championship game.
But when Strasburg walked into the Nationals clubhouse after a good night's sleep, he went straight to Baker's office.
"I could see the focus and determination in his eyes," Baker said.
The Cubs saw the same thing in so many overmatched at-bats. Maddon called the blustery conditions a "pitcher's paradise," and Strasburg made it hell for hitters. Only Strasburg's stuff was sick, as the kids say.
"Games like this you have to go out and give everything you have," Strasburg said.
Jon Lester epitomized that approach for the Cubs.
Lester reprised his role as Mr. October with a relief stint as sensational as it was surprising. Saturday's Game 2 starter replaced Jake Arrieta, who labored through four innings in his first start since Sept. 26 because of a hamstring injury. When Lester took over, the Nationals clung to a 1-0 lead courtesy of a Russell error. Retiring the first 10 Nationals he faced, Lester kept the Cubs close by giving up only a meager single in 32/3 innings.
Lester's biggest ovation came in the eighth when he picked off Ryan Zimmerman - words seldom written. To see Lester overcome his quirky aversion of throwing to first base, under these circumstances, was like watching a therapy session in front of 42,264 people. It punctuated an outstanding performance, all for naught.© Brian Cassella/Chicago Tribune/TNS Chicago Cubs pitcher Jon Lester works in relief of starting pitcher Jake Arrieta in the fifth inning against the Washington Nationals in Game 4 of the National League Division Series at Wrigley Field in Chicago on Wednesday, Oct. 11, 2017.
Everything began unraveling when Maddon pulled Lester with two outs in the eighth after Murphy singled on his 55th pitch instead of letting the lefty finish the inning. Reliever Carl Edwards Jr. proved ineffective again, wildly walking the bases loaded. Then Maddon's decision to bring in closer Wade Davis with a 1-0 count backfired when Taylor became the unlikeliest of villains with a 393-foot home run into the right-field basket.
"That ball had to be absolutely crushed," Maddon said.
Crushed also describes the way Cubs fans felt seeing the Nationals celebrate. Faith still exists in Game 5 starter Kyle Hendricks, who will oppose either Roark or Gio Gonzalez, but the specter of Max Scherzer also looms.
"We'll be fine," Maddon said, smiling.
How fitting that a Cubs season full of so many fits and starts, amid so much inconsistency, now comes down to an outcome impossible to predict.
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Source : https://www.msn.com/en-us/news/other/david-haugh-uncertainty-in-air-for-cubs-after-stephen-strasburg-forces-game-5/ar-AAtjRtu