Somewhere, video techs in Bristol, CT, and at Fox Sports headquarters are trying to find old highlights of Michael Jordan because the NBA great now has something in common with Stephen Strasburg.
Jordan’s legendary Flu Game, which took place 20 years ago this past June, is one of the iconic moments in the history of sports. Suffering from a nasty virus, His Airness took the court after running high fevers for most of the day and helped the Chicago Bulls come from behind to beat the Utah Jazz in Game 5 of the NBA Finals, taking a 3-2 series lead. Receiving fluids and plied with ice packs the entire night when off the court, Jordan finished the game with 38 points in the 90-88 win.
Two decades later, baseball has been given its own version of that feat.
Strasburg was so ill over the last week that Washington Nationals manager Dusty Baker planned to stick with planned Game 4 starter Tanner Roark rather than take advantage of Tuesday’s rainout, which would have allowed him to send his ace out on normal rest in an elimination game against the Chicago Cubs. But after receiving a high dose of antibiotics overnight, Strasburg felt better, marched into Baker’s office and told his manager to give him the ball.
Out he went into a cold, rainy Wrigley Field, aiming to force a decisive Game 5 in Washington on Thursday.
All Strasburg did was utterly dominate the defending champions for the second time in the Division Series. The righty’s line was insane: seven innings pitched, three hits, no runs, two walks, 12 strikeouts. Any nascent rallies were snuffed out with extreme prejudice, and the late-inning Chicago magic that has characterized their last two postseasons never materialized.
The Cubs put together what might have been their best chance to score in the second inning when Ben Zobrist doubled with one out. Addison Russell then crushed a 0-1 slider that Strasburg left over the inner part of the plate. On any other day, it would have been 2-0 Cubs, but the conditions at Wrigley were terrible for hitters, and the wind blew the ball down on the warning track. Zobrist advanced to third and Jason Heyward walked, but Strasburg forced a soft grounder back to the mound from Javier Baez to end the threat.
It might have looked like he was teetering, but the 6-foot-4 flamethrower immediately made a statement in the third, striking out the side on 12 pitches.
He allowed only three other baserunners the rest of his outing. One of them, a leadoff single by Heyward in the fifth, was immediately erased when Baez grounded into a double play on Strasburg’s first pitch.
Strasburg needed every single out he recorded because his offense wasn’t giving him any support.
Cubs starter Jake Arrieta didn’t have his best stuff, but the Nats failed to capitalize on this. The only run they managed scored on a fielding error by Russell in the top of the third. In the fourth, they loaded the bases on an Anthony Rendon double and a pair of walks, but Jayson Werth struck out to end the threat. That was the last chance they had at the scuffling Arrieta. He was replaced by Jon Lester, who didn’t give up a hit until the eighth inning.
It was in that inning that Strasburg, his day done, finally got insurance. After Carl Edwards, Jr, who replaced Lester, walked two to load the bases, Michael A. Taylor flipped Wade Davis’ third pitch of the game through the wind and into the basket over the right field fence for a grand slam.
The unlikely homer was the icing on the cake to Strasburg’s dominant outing, which had given the Nats all the momentum heading into the game’s final phases.
Strasburg’s performance might be the best performance by a starter facing elimination since Curt Schilling’s immortal Bloody Sock game in 2004. Playing with sutures holding his ankle together, Schilling also went seven in that game, striking out only four but surrendering only four hits, one run, and no walks. Throw in the fact that, like Schilling, Strasburg was physically hampered—by illness rather than injury but still hampered—going into the game, and it shows you how impressive the performance was.
With the travel day used for the rainout, these teams will hop a plane and get right back to it at Nationals Park on Thursday. The Cubs will turn to Game 1 starter Kyle Hendricks while Baker will send Max Scherzer to the mound on short rest. The winner will head to Los Angeles to take on a well-rested Dodgers team in the NLCS starting on Saturday night.
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