CHICAGO — It was midday in Chicago when the news came out, a time slot long reserved for preposterous storylines involving unlikely returns from the dead, characters named Blake and Arielle, and decisions that tug on emotions while making heads shake.
The Washington Nationals went through a 20-hour shift of twists and turns starting with the 5:30 p.m. Central press conference Tuesday when they stunned everyone by saying Tanner Roark would pitch Game 4 of the National League Division Series instead of Stephen Strasburg.
A flood of stories and questions followed, including that Strasburg was sick and refused to pitch or that the Nationals decided that Strasburg should not pitch because of his weakened state. There was confusion about when he threw a bullpen session — it was Monday not Tuesday — and why, if sick, he was at Wrigley Field in terrible conditions?
Then, an announcement Wednesday morning at 11:50 a.m. local time: Strasburg will start Game 4 for the Nationals. Washington trails the series, 2-1, and is one loss from its season again ending in the first round.
The careening storyline hit its nadir Wednesday morning when Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo appeared on The Junkies, 106.7 The Fan’s morning show. He had terse exchanges with the hosts and defended the initial choice of Roark.
Meanwhile, Strasburg had reached out to pitching coach Mike Maddux to tell him that he felt better and wanted to pitch. Problem was, the general manager and president of baseball operations did not know that yet.
The Nationals received bad publicity from national and District outlets for their decision to choose Roark — a sturdy No. 4 starter — over an ill Strasburg, who carried a no-hitter through much of Game 1, has a $175 million contract and was the best pitcher in the National League after the All-Star break.
Considering the confusion, let’s map through the facts: Strasburg threw a bullpen session Monday. That meant he worked on his regular schedule. The postponement of Tuesday’s game because of inclement weather produced a chance to use Strasburg, notoriously routined, on regular rest. At first, the Nationals were not going to do that. They said that decision was a group one based on how sick Strasburg was at the time.
Nationals manager Dusty Baker said after the postponement that Strasburg was ill, so the team chose Roark over a depleted Strasburg. A spokesperson for the Nationals amplified that statement shortly before the blowback for not using Strasburg was launched.
In a message to reporters, the Nationals clarified how sick Strasburg was and repeated that was the reason he was not selected to pitch Game 4. They also had to clarify that they did not switch hotels because mold in the hotel was making the traveling party sick. It was the mold count in the air. It’s safe to assume it was the first time in baseball history that this clarification was necessary.
After his morning defense of the decision, Rizzo held a press conference at 12:30 p.m. Central to explain.
“So after his start on Friday, a couple days afterwards, he started feeling flu-like symptoms and that continued for the next couple of days: Fever, chills, acute sinusitis. And when he threw his bullpen Monday, he was feeling really bad. He had no endurance. He was really weak and it was — just wasn’t feeling great.
“You know, he battled through it. We aggressively — he saw our doctors and they aggressively put him on an antibiotic regimen, anti-inflammatories, and fluid IVs. He’s taken several IVs the last couple of days, last night, and again today.
“At the time of the rainout Tuesday when we were going to announce our starter for the rain game, we went to Stras and he said, he told me he wanted to take the ball. He said, ‘I’ll give you everything I’ve got,’ but he doesn’t know how much he has.
“We felt at that time it wasn’t enough when we have a guy like Tanner Roark there that’s able to start. Tanner was prepared. It was his day to start, and we felt very, very comfortable giving him the ball in Game 4.
“Then as of today, we switched Stras’s antibiotics, gave him a higher dose, IV fluids throughout the evening, and this morning he felt much more like Stephen Strasburg. So he came into the clubhouse and went to the manager’s office and said that, “I want to start this game.
Rizzo went on to say many of the reports around the situation were “inaccurate.” Since the Nationals are facing elimination Wednesday, he said “all hands” are on deck, including Max Scherzer, who pitched Game 3 on Monday. The Game 5 starter, if there is one, has not been decided.
“Well, he seemed, you know, more focused than normal,” Baker said of their conversation in his office. “He just said, “I’m feeling a whole lot better,” and, “I want the ball.” That was kind of the gist of the conversation.”
Baker said Strasburg will be treated as if this is a normal start. He later labeled him at 90-95 percent and defended his prior phrasing that Strasburg was, “under the weather,” by saying he did not want to specify what was wrong with Strasburg. Baker went on to say that, when he left the park Tuesday night, he didn’t think Strasburg would be able to pitch Wednesday.
“I was planning on Tanner pitching,” Baker said. “But you know, things can — the thing about baseball is that you have to — things are subject to change and it was a — maybe the rain helped him and helped us, like I hoped that it would. I said my prayers and said, ‘Hey, man, let the rain try to help us.’”
First pitch is at 4 p.m. Eastern.
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