The Nats prevailed, 5-0, forcing a Game 5 against the defending World Series champion Chicago Cubs on Thursday night that will send the winner to Los Angeles and a date with the top-seeded Dodgers in the NL Championship Series presented by Camping World.
Strasburg nearly singlehandedly willed the Nationals back to D.C. himself with 12 strikeouts in seven shutout innings on a misty, windy evening at Wrigley Field.
"When he's healthy and he's on the mound, he's one of, if not, the best pitchers in the game," Nats first baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. "Since the All-Star break, nobody has really been like him. To have him come out and do that in a spot like that, obviously ... huge is an understatement for us."
Strasburg almost did not start this game. He battled flu-like symptoms all week and the team initially planned to start Tanner Roark. Given the way he was feeling when he went to bed Tuesday night, Strasburg would have considered his chances of starting this game small. But after switching up his antibiotics, he arrived to Wrigley Field feeling better and said he wanted the ball.
"I'm surprised I was able to hang in there," Strasburg said. "But again, I think it's just those situations where, you know, try and break the game down, keep it simple, and just know that going in, whatever I have in the tank, I'm giving it everything I have."
On Wednesday, Strasburg dominated and got some huge help from Michael A. Taylor's grand slam. Taylor broke it open, capping a two-out rally in the eighth with a euphoric shot in the arm off Cubs reliever Wade Davis.
"It's not ideal, but now the series is tied with the decisive Game 5 coming up tomorrow," Chicago starter Jake Arrieta said. "We like our chances -- as long as Strasburg isn't on the mound, we'll be all right."
The Nationals took advantage of an error by shortstop Addison Russell to score the only run Strasburg needed on a drizzly, chilly day at Wrigley that felt very much like October. Game 4 had been scheduled for Tuesday, but rain forced a one-day delay, which allowed Strasburg to pitch on regular rest -- although the Nationals had said Roark would start.
"Gets ahead in the count. Fastball command is outstanding. He's really able to throw his fastball for a strike when he wants to, where he wants to," said Cubs manager Joe Maddon. "His curve was really good, too. He had everything going on tonight. If you don't get him early in the count, it's really difficult, because he has these two other outstanding pitches to throw deeper in the count, curveball, changeup, which he did."
Early Wednesday, Strasburg told the Nationals he was OK, and he proved it on his first pitch, firing a 95-mph fastball to Cubs leadoff man Jon Jay. The right-hander, whose changeup was even nastier, limited the Cubs to three hits over seven innings. The 12 K's are a Nationals single-game postseason record, topping the 10 strikeouts by Strasburg himself in Game 1.
"He throws that fastball and it rises and the changeup falls off the planet," Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo said. "Basically anyone who goes into the batting cage and doesn't know how to hit, that's what it feels like.''
Arrieta, pushed back in the Cubs' rotation because of a tender right hamstring, lasted four innings, throwing 90 pitches, and did strike out four, including Jayson Werth to end the fourth and leave the bases loaded.
"You know, Jake, physically, fine," Maddon said. "Command, off a little bit. Battled through that. I mean, it was 90 pitches after four. And how about Jon Lester tonight? He gave us a chance to win that game. I thought overall Jake, stuff-wise, not bad, but not as sharp as he can be."
The Nationals provided Strasburg and the club's bullpen with a cushion in the eighth when they loaded the bases with two outs, and Taylor launched a 94-mph fastball from Davis into the basket rimming the right-field bleachers. It was the first grand slam in Nationals postseason history.
MOMENTS THAT MATTERED Leadoff man:Trea Turner finally got on base in October, which led to a run. With one out in the Nats' third, Turner doubled to left to end an 0-for-13 start to the postseason.
"I felt good because I'm at the top of the lineup to get on base, kind of start things, I haven't done a good job of that this series," Turner said. "To have one fall felt good. Tried to get the ball rolling."
Turner advanced on a wild pitch by Arrieta, who struck out Werth looking, although Werth disagreed. Arrieta fell behind, 3-0, to Bryce Harper, and eventually walked him. Arrieta thought he had Zimmerman out on a checked swing but it was called a ball. Zimmerman then hit a grounder to Russell, who charged the ball but couldn't field it cleanly, and Turner scored on the error.
How do you spell relief? The Cubs called on Game 2 starter Lester to pitch in the fifth, his first relief appearance since Game 7 of the 2016 World Series. The lefty struck out three and retired the first 10 batters he faced before walking Zimmerman with one out in the eighth. Zimmerman tested the lefty's ability to throw to first, and on the third throw, the Cubs thought they got Zimmerman, but first-base umpire Jerry Layne ruled safe. The Cubs challenged the call, and after a review, it was overturned.
SOUND SMART WITH YOUR FRIENDS Strasburg is the third pitcher to strike out at least 10 twice in any Division Series since Justin Verlander did so in 2012 and '13, and Cliff Lee in '10. The 22 K's by Strasburg ties the Division Series record (Verlander also fanned 22 in '12).
Taylor's home run was the second allowed in 26 career postseason appearances for Davis. The only other homer came in his first playoff game, on Oct. 10, 2010, when he started for the Rays in the American League Division Series against the Rangers.
In Game 1, Rizzo and Kris Bryant had each struck out twice before delivering RBI hits off Strasburg in Chicago's 3-0 win. On Wednesday, the pair went 0-for-5 with five strikeouts, and Rizzo drew a walk vs. Strasburg.
WHAT'S NEXT Nationals: The Nationals forced the series back to Washington for a decisive Game 5 on Thursday night. Gio Gonzalez, who started Game 2, got the starting nod over Roark, who has yet to pitch in this series.
Cubs: The series shifts back to Washington and Kyle Hendricks will start Game 5 on Thursday at Nationals Park. Hendricks was masterful in Game 1, giving up two hits over seven scoreless innings. He struck out six and was efficient, throwing 106 pitches.