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Ailing Cubs offense can’t get well against Strasburg

Chicago Cubs' Anthony Rizzo reacts after striking out against the Washington Nationals during the first inning of Game 4 of baseball's National League Division Series, Wednesday, Oct. 11, 2017, in Chicago. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)
(AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

Thanks to a sick performance from Stephen Strasburg at a rain-soaked Wrigley Field, members of the Chicago Cubs offense were the ones that looked feeble on Wednesday. With Washington facing elimination, Strasburg overcame whatever sort of illness he had to manhandle the Cubs through seven shutout innings, leading the Nationals to a 5-0 victory in Game 4 of the National League Division Series.

In reality, Wednesday afternoon in Chicago was a bad day for offense. The playing surface took in rain from about 5 p.m. CDT Tuesday until maybe a few hours ahead of the first pitch Wednesday. A steady mist fell throughout the game, with the wind blowing straight in from right field off Lake Michigan. Suffice it to say, the conditions favored pitching.

For the Nationals, pitching was certainly the story. A lot was made of Strasburg being too sick to start on Wednesday, with manager Dusty Baker taking the heat for what many viewed as the Nationals not being straightforward about what happened. But things changed after Strasburg got a good night’s sleep.

“It was a challenge,” said Strasburg. “It seemed like once we got here, you know, I got hit pretty hard with this virus. You know, it just seemed to suck the life out of me every single day.

“I woke up this morning, and I wouldn’t say I felt great but, you know, I felt like I was better than what I was the day before. And so games like this, you have to go out there and give it everything you have, whatever it is. So I called [pitching coach Mike Maddux] this morning and said, ‘Just give me the ball.’ ”

And give him the ball, they did. Strasburg pitched an absolute gem, throwing 106 pitches in seven innings with three hits, two walks and a franchise playoff record 12 strikeouts. Cubs hitters had no chance. Domination isn’t a strong enough word to describe what happened.

“He had everything working tonight,” said Baker. “He had a great changeup. His fastball is always good, good slider; and like I said, he looked very, very determined. The only time I asked him anything was at the end of the seventh because he had (106) pitches.

“I knew he was running out of gas because he’s been sick. But fortunately for us, it was a cool night, you know, for him.”

Washington Nationals starting pitcher Stephen Strasburg (37) adjusts his cap during the second inning of Game 4 of baseball's National League Division Series against the Chicago Cubs, Wednesday, Oct. 11, 2017, in Chicago. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

(AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

For the Cubs, Jake Arrieta took the mound for the first time in just over two weeks because of an aching hamstring. He tossed four innings, showcasing his trademark movement on his pitches but being unable to command them for strikes. Arrieta allowed one unearned run, the result of an error by shortstop Addison Russell in the third inning.

Cubs manager Joe Maddon threw his own curveball in the fifth inning. With the Cubs trailing 1-0, Maddon brought Game 2 starter Jon Lester out of the bullpen, and the left-hander delighted the home crowd by pitching a perfect fifth, sixth and seventh.

The starting pitching is essentially the reason the Cubs are still alive in this series. Although Arrieta didn’t command his pitches well, he and Lester combined for seven strikeouts in 7.2 innings while allowing three hits, six walks and just one earned run. For the series, Lester, Arrieta, Jose Quintana and Kyle Hendricks have 22 strikeouts in 26.1 innings, allowing nine hits, 12 walks and just two earned runs.

But Lester exited in the eighth inning with two outs and a runner on first base, relieved by Carl Edwards Jr. That was when the real trouble started for the Cubs. What followed was a conga line of Nationals batters, finished off by a Michael A. Taylor grand slam off Cubs closer Wade Davis. That made it 5-0 Washington, and the game was essentially over.

After all the offensive struggles, the dominance of Davis this year, and the wind howling in from right field along with the heavy mist, an opposite field home run was the last thing anyone expected to see. Taylor credits it to doing his homework and staying within his game plan.

“It wasn’t so much a pitch or location,” Taylor said about the at-bat against Davis. “For me, it’s just getting a pitch in the strike zone. A lot of times I can be a little too aggressive.

“So just trying to slow myself down. Obviously, watching video, getting an idea of all the pitches he has and seeing what they are doing, once I got in there, try to find the baseball and get a pitch in the zone.”

The story of the series for the Cubs is that they have yet to get their offense going. While the Nats have struggled at the plate, at least two big innings provided a lift. Chicago has just eight runs in four games. Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, Russell, Javier Baez and Kyle Schwarber have combined to hit 9-for-57 this series — a .158 average.

“We’ve just got to stay in our lane, in other words, not chase,” said Maddon. “But again, that’s easier said than done. (Strasburg’s) changeup is so spectacular. We chased a lot. We were out of the zone a lot, and if a pitcher can get you out, outside of the zone, he’s going to keep doing that.”

Even though the Cubs will be facing elimination in Washington on Thursday, the good news is that this group knows how to get it done in a hostile environment.

“We have been here before,” said Maddon. “Our guys are ready to play. It’s been a really interesting series. Both teams have reflected one another pretty closely and they got us tonight, and we just have to fly back east and try to get them tomorrow night.”

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