Bob Nightengale, USA TODAY Sports
CHICAGO – Stephen Strasburg woke up Wednesday morning, reached for his phone, and called the number with the 702 area code.
“I want the ball. Give me the ball.’’
Washington Nationals pitching coach Mike Maddux listened, took the early bus to Wrigley Field, and they gathered together in manager Dusty Baker’s cramped office.
“I want the ball,’’ Strasburg repeated in front of Baker. “Give it to me.’’
They were the beautiful words that Baker and the Nationals had been patiently awaiting the past 24 hours, hoping Strasburg would tell them he wanted to pitch, not letting anyone else do his job.
Maddux looked at Baker. Baker looked at Strasburg. Baker stared into Strasburg’s eyes.
“He had the eye of the tiger,’’ Maddux said. “He didn’t ask for the ball. He demanded it.’’
“We looked at him, and said, ‘OK. You got it. You got it.’’’
Strasburg, nationally ridiculed overnight, stomped onto the field, and promptly pitched the biggest game of his life, leading the Nationals to a 5-0 victory over the defending World Series champion Chicago Cubs, forcing a Game 5 Thursday [8 ET, TBS] at Nationals Park.
Strasburg was sensational on this 59-degree night. He pitched seven shutout innings, giving up just three hits, and struck out a franchise postseason record 12 batters. He has now pitched 14 innings this postseason without giving up an earned run and tied Justin Verlander for the most strikeouts, 22, in a Division Series.
“It was a huge game for the Nats,’’ Maddux said. “It was probably a bigger game for Stephen.
“It was a big growing game for him. He quieted a lot of naysayers.’’
This, of course, is what the Nationals envisioned all along. They wanted Strasburg to pitch Game 4 after Tuesday’s rainout enabled him to pitch on regular rest.
Baker announced that Strasburg, in a now-famous bit of phrasing, was “under the weather,” and they would have to go with veteran Tanner Roark.
Strasburg was shut down before the postseason in 2012. He was injured and didn’t pitch in last year’s postseason. He had only pitched five innings in the Nationals’ three postseasons, all which ended with losses in the division series.
Now, here he was telling the Nats he wasn’t feeling well, leaving several club officials livid, teammates confused, and peers questioning his desire.
“It was huge,’’ said Nationals leadoff hitter Trea Turner, who had been oh-for-October until he reached base three times. “I think, you know, this time of year, you can’t feel bad for yourself. You can’t make excuses. It was unbelievable.
“And we really needed it.’’
Once Strasburg wanted that ball, Baker said, the biggest battle was over. There was no doubt that when he stepped onto the field, Baker said, he was going to pitch a beauty.
“I could see the focus and determination in his eyes,’’ Baker said. “He’s a man of few words, but the words he said, gave us every indication that he was ready.’’
And, oh, was he ever.
His fastball was a tick slower at 96-mph, but he baffled the Cubs all day with his curveball and changeup. The Cubs swung at his changeup 23 times, according to Inside Edge, and missed 15 of them, leading to eight of his 12 strikeouts.
“He’s pitching absolutely at the top of his game right now,” says Cubs manager Joe Maddon.
And to think, Strasburg nearly sat this one out.
“It was a crazy 24 hours,’’ closer Sean Doolittle said. “When he came in here, and we saw Stras in his routine, you couldn’t tell at all that he was under the weather. He was just super focused.
“We didn’t want anybody to play hero, and maybe there was some miscommunication how that all came out, but when he came out today, it was pretty apparent he was good to go.’’
Strasburg, the No. 1 pick in the 2009 draft, refused to gloat after the game. He declined to fire back at those who ridiculed him. He was merely Stras, soft-spoken, articulate, and shy in his delivery, saying that when he woke up Wednesday, he knew he needed to take the ball.
“I just gave it a night just to see how I’d feel,’’ said Strasburg, who was battling a virus, “that if there was any chance, I was going to go out there. So woke up and I was like, ‘All right, let’s do it.’’
If there was any pressure to make the start, Strasburg said, it certainly wasn’t by the media’s reaction, and none of his teammates publicly revealed they persuaded him.
“Not to you guys, no,’’ Strasburg said in the postgame press conference. “You guys create the drama. But I have faith in every other guy in this clubhouse and I know the coaching staff feels the same.’’
Then again, if Strasburg had not pitched Wednesday night, and the Nationals had gone out quietly, it could have forever tarnished his image.
“He was able to cowboy up tonight, and do his job,’’ Nats All-Star right fielder Bryce Harper says. “It shows you how great of a teammate he is. He was just a warrior to be able to go out there and pitch that gem.’’
A gem that will grow in lore should the Nationals capture Game 5, and their first postseason victory.
“You know, what Stephen went through,’’ Maddux said, “was just so unfair. The guy is a warrior. He really is.
“Now, everyone got to see it.’’