CHICAGO — When he talks, Michael A. Taylor speaks in soft tones. He does not talk just to do so after being raised by a father in the military who taught him to be measured in his behavior and tone. When he does speak, he is polite and cooperative, but it’s silence he is most often surrounded by.
Wednesday night in Chicago, Taylor pushed one of his defining personality traits onto sold-out Wrigley Field. He hit a 1-1 pitch for an opposite-field grand slam in the top of the eighth inning off Chicago closer Wade Davis, who was brought to the mound with the count already 1-0, to finally expand Washington’s lead. This small park known for charm and raucous fans fell silent by the time Taylor was rounding second base.
His grand slam had backed a lore-building and narrative-changing start for Stephen Strasburg. It also led to a 5-0 Washington win in Game 4, flipping elimination into anything being possible. Game 5 of the tied National League Division Series between these teams will be Thursday night in Nationals Park. Kyle Hendricks will pitch for the Cubs. The Nationals have not selected a starter. Based on the series so far, anyone who claims to have a handle on the possible outcome is telling a fib.
“This is what playoff baseball is supposed to be like,” Ryan Zimmerman said. “It’s supposed to be tight games. It’s supposed to be big hits.”
The day began with Strasburg as the focus following 24 hours of questions about why he was initially not named the starter for the game. Once Strasburg was on the mound, the storyline about how he pushed back sickness to get there began to subside.
His first inning was a bit slow — he threw almost as many balls as strikes — but he struck out two to start. A bit of trouble brewed in the second. Ben Zobrist doubled. Addison Russell’s well-struck fly ball that was unmercifully driven down by mist and wind followed. Jayson Werth caught it on the warning track in left field. Any other day, it’s likely a two-run homer. Instead, it became a deep out absorbed by the poor weather.
“They were saying in the dugout that he flushed it,” Werth said. “When he hit, I thought I had it the whole way.”
Each inning that ticked by after that seemed to ratchet up Strasburg’s effectiveness, though he wasn’t sure until the morning of the game that he could pitch.
He struck out the side in the third on 12 pitches. He struck out the side again in the fourth inning, working around his own throwing error. Cubs fans encased in blue sweatshirts and gear usually reserved for Bears’ games tried to rattle him by chanting his name with a subversive tone. “Stras-burg, Stras-burg.” He’d just throw another strike to mute them.
The situation that bit Strasburg in Game 1 when he carried a no-hitter into the sixth inning arose again in the sixth Wednesday. The top of the Cubs’ order was coming up for the third time. Just like Game 1, Strasburg had controlled the Cubs’ most potent hitters, Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo, to that point in the game. In their first four at-bats, the duo was 0-for-4 with four strikeouts. In Game 1, they broke through the third time around. Wednesday, Bryant struck out and Rizzo walked. Strasburg ended the inning with the next pitch when Willson Contreras flew out. There would be no repeat unraveling.
The first crucial decision of the afternoon came when Strasburg was due to bat in the top of the seventh. He was at 89 pitches and leading off the inning. Nationals manager Dusty Baker allowed Strasburg to hit for himself, meaning that he would be back on the mound to begin the seventh. Left-handed Oliver Perez and right-handed Ryan Madson began to warm up.
No need for those two yet. Strasburg struck out the side, including nemesis Jason Heyward. The Cubs’ right fielder had entered the series hitting .405 against Strasburg in his career. A final changeup from Strasburg led to his 12th and finishing strikeout. He threw 106 pitches. Of those, 72 were strikes. He jogged off the mound done for the night knowing that he asked to be in this game, then dominated it: seven innings pitched, three hits, two walks, no earned runs and 12 strikeouts.
He had been sick since arriving in Chicago on Sunday. Strasburg needed IVs, antibiotics and rest. The treatments finally piled up to a point he felt well enough when he woke up Wednesday that he could pitch, which led to him replacing Tanner Roark.
“So I called [pitching coach Mike Maddux] in the morning and said, “Just give me the ball,’” Strasburg said. “That’s what he did.”
When he was done, the Nationals remained in search of any offense. Cubs pitcher Jon Lester, typically a starter, had relieved Jake Arrieta, who lasted just four innings in the game and allowed an unearned run. Lester made it to the eighth inning. That’s when Chicago manager Joe Maddon began to tinker. With a 1-0 count on Taylor, he brought in Davis, who had a 0.84 ERA in 32 ⅓ postseason innings. The mid at-bat pitching change prompted Taylor to quickly go view video on Davis. He fouled off the first pitch. The second he drove into the basket just over the head of right fielder Ian Happ.
“I was kind of numb, just running around the bases,” Taylor said.
The hit was a much-needed dam burst and unlikely. The conditions that snuffed out Russell’s would-be homer in the second surprisingly did not stop Taylor’s fly ball.
“That took a man to hit it through that wind tonight,” Daniel Murphy said.
Taylor crossed the plate to high-five four teammates. He smiled, then calmly walked to the dugout to the low-slung visitor’s dugout in Wrigley. After a postponement Tuesday, a 24-hour period of bad publicity afterward, and a tense seven innings Wednesday, the Nationals are heading home for Game 5.
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