NLDS Takeaways: Strasburg changing playoff narrative with electric October

Washington Nationals' Stephen Strasburg throws a pitch. (Ross D. Franklin/AP)

Five years have now passed since the Washington Nationals decided to rest Stephen Strasburg instead of pushing him through October in his first season back from Tommy John surgery. Nobody around baseball’s about to forget what happened in 2012, but Strasburg’s post-season performance this October tells a much different story.

Facing the defending champions in an elimination game, the right-hander rebounded from an illness to strike out 12 Chicago Cubs over seven shutout innings. Some takeaways from Wednesday’s action with less than 24 hours remaining before Game 5…

Let’s start with the obvious here. The Nationals didn’t handle the Strasburg decision well. They initially announced Tanner Roark as the Game 4 starter, explaining that Strasburg, easily the superior pitcher, was ‘under the weather.’ Washington manager Dusty Baker only added to the confusion by citing ‘mold around Chicago’ this time of year as a potential cause of illness.

But Strasburg ultimately took the mound, and when he did he pitched phenomenally, limiting the Cubs to three hits and two walks. In two starts against the right-hander this post-season, the Cubs have managed only two unearned runs over 14 innings while striking out 22 times.

Strasburg touched 97 m.p.h. on the radar gun Wednesday, but his change-up was easily his most effective pitch. He threw it 32 times and Cubs hitters swung and missed at 15 of those offerings.

Quietly, the Nationals enjoyed a productive season from Michael A. Taylor. The 26-year-old batted .271/.320/.486 as the club’s primary centre fielder.

He showed some power, but not enough to stand out on a team with Ryan Zimmerman, Bryce Harper and Anthony Rendon. More broadly, if you hit 19 home runs in a season where 117 players hit 20, you’re not likely to stand out.

But with two out in the eighth inning Wednesday, Taylor hit the biggest home run of the Nationals’ season, powering a grand slam just over the wall in right field to extend what had been a 1-0 lead.

The sight of a frontline starter in the bullpen was once a rarity. Now? It’s almost expected in high-leverage moments.

Already this post-season we’ve seen accomplished starters including Chris Sale, Justin Verlander, Rick Porcello, David Price and Robbie Ray pitch out of the bullpen. On Wednesday, Jon Lester joined the club, pitching 3.2 effective innings in relief of Jake Arrieta.

Depending on the composition of a pitching staff, this strategy can make a whole lot of sense. While teams like the Yankees have a seemingly endless supply of elite relievers, most bullpens aren’t quite so deep. The Cubs, for example, don’t have enough dominant bullpen arms to bridge the gap to closer Wade Davis on days their starters don’t pitch deep. (Reinforcing that point, the Cubs called on Carl Edwards Jr. for the fourth consecutive game Wednesday only to see him struggle.)

Enter Lester, who pitched exceptionally well and even picked Ryan Zimmerman off first base for a crucial out in the eighth inning to the delight of the Wrigley Field crowd. Even though the Cubs didn’t ultimately catch up, Lester’s contributions kept the game within reach for the Chicago offence.

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