CHICAGO – There was only one change that fooled the Cubs on Wednesday, and that was Stephen Strasburg’s change-up.
Make that a lot of Stephen Strasburg change-ups.
Forget all the intrigue about Strasburg being sick and probably not pitching. The Cubs were mentally prepared.
Physically, the Cubs had little chance against Strasburg’s fastball and particularly against his change-up, as the Washington Nationals’ right-hander shut them down over seven innings in a 5-0 victory at Wrigley Field in Game 4 of the National League Division Series.
The Nationals picked up an unearned run in the third and blew it open on Michael Taylor’s grand slam off Wade Davis in the eighth.
The series is tied at two games apiece, with the decisive fifth game happening Thursday night at Nationals Park.
Strasburg looked as fit as a Stradivarius as he came out of sick bay with his team’s backs against the wall.
As of late morning, Tanner Roark was the Nats’ scheduled pitcher, but after some magic medicine and IV treatment, Strasburg was able to take the mound. He wound up allowing three hits and striking out 12.
The Cubs seemed to figure all along they were going to face Strasburg, who gave up only two unearned runs over seven innings in his Game 1 start at Washington.
“I think we knew that Stras was going to start today,” said Cubs pitcher Jake Arrieta, who ran his pitch count to 90 over only four innings. “Regardless of what they said, with the rainout yesterday, we kind of knew he was going to pitch. And he’s been absolutely lights out.
“He’s been throwing three or four pitches for strikes. His change-up and curveball combination has been devastating. He’s been on his game. He made it tough on us again tonight. We get to go to Washington tomorrow night and play the decisive game, and that’s why the playoffs are so fun.”
Arrieta was a question mark, as well. He has been feeling the ill effects of a right hamstring strain suffered Labor Day.
He hadn’t pitched since Sept. 26 and admitted to being amped up for Wednesday’s start.
“I felt pretty good; I was just a little erratic,” he said. “My emotions were high. The energy level was at a pretty high level, obviously, in this situation. I wasn’t going to give in and make mistakes and allow them to do extended damage, especially with multiple hitters in a row.
“Walks were up (five), but when it came down to it, I made some good pitches when I had to, to kind of preserve the situation and get it to the next inning.”
How tough was Strasburg and his change-up?
“Probably like you going over to Sluggers and trying to hit,” first baseman Anthony Rizzo said.
The Cubs had their best chance in the second. Ben Zobrist doubled to right with one out. Addison Russell crushed a ball to left field. But a cold, damp wind blowing in at 16 mph held the ball in the ballpark, and it nestled into Jayson Werth’s glove.
“Leaving the bat I thought for sure, two points, but we’re working with the elements, and that’s the name of the game tonight,” Russell said. “That, and Strasburg’s change-up was really [good] tonight.”
Russell’s error on Ryan Zimmerman’s grounder allowed Trea Turner to score from third with two outs in the third.
“Normally I make that play, but when you got the elements to work with and then just trying to slow the game down, as well,” Russell said. “I make that play routinely.”
Jon Lester pitched 32/3 innings of relief and gave way to Carl Edwards Jr. in the eighth. It was another rough outing for Edwards, who walked two, leaving the bases loaded for Taylor to do his damage against Davis, the Cubs’ normally reliable closer.
“It was a bad pitch. It was down the middle,” Davis said. “He put a swing on it. I’d like to have it back.”
All along, Cubs manager Joe Maddon said it didn’t matter who pitched for the Nats. In the end, it did.