• NLDS Game 5: Tonight, 8 p.m. ET/7 p.m. CT on TBS
It’s only right that the Nationals and Cubs are going the distance in this National League Division Series presented by T-Mobile.
• Gear up for Cubs’ postseason
Joe Maddon’s fellows would have loved to end it early, but then Stephen Strasburg experienced a miracle recovery, so here we are.
We’re going to have a Game 5 on Thursday night at Nationals Park, with the defending World Series champs trying to use their big-game DNA to move on to face the Dodgers in a rematch of last year’s NL Championship Series presented by Camping World.
“You always want to celebrate on your home field in front of your fans,” Anthony Rizzo said after a 5-0 loss in Game 4 of the NLDS on a cold, damp afternoon and early evening at Wrigley Field. “Same objective [in Game 5]. We’ve got to win tomorrow to keep going and do what we want to do.”
There aren’t many teams that could have beaten Strasburg in this game. He reminded the baseball world why he was the buzziest of pitchers while in college at San Diego State, on Wednesday flummoxing Rizzo and his teammates with his combination of mid-90s fastball and a bat-defying changeup.
Strasburg piled up 12 strikeouts while allowing only two hits in seven innings. How tough was it to hit his changeup?
“Probably like you going over to [the batting cage at] Sluggers and trying to hit,” Rizzo answered a Chicago reporter. “He throws that fastball and it rises, and the changeup falls off the planet. Basically anyone who goes into the batting cage and doesn’t know how to hit, that’s what it feels like.”
Michael A. Taylor’s eighth-inning grand slam off Wade Davis broke open Game 4, which had been 1-0 since the third inning. Despite the final score, this was like all of the games in the series, decided by a handful of at-bats and a key play (or misplay) in the field.
That’s what we expected when the NLDS started, and that’s what we’ve gotten.
“Hey, this is a heck of a series,” Nationals president of baseball operations and general manager Mike Rizzo said. “These are two really good teams that are closely matched. The margin for error is minute. You can see how closely played these games are, and you know, these are games that often come down to the smallest detail.”
Unfortunately for Rizzo and the Nats, they will not have Strasburg available to start again Thursday, regardless if he’s under or over the weather. That means that the deciding game will be a fair fight, not another pitching performance worthy of a time capsule.
Well, hold that thought.
There should be more good pitching at Nationals Park, but this time with the Cubs’ Kyle Hendricks in the leading role.
Hendricks out-battled Strasburg in Game 1, getting the victory in a 3-0 game on the strength of seven shutout innings. The Professor has been quietly preparing to face the Nats for the second time, although like the rest of the Cubs, he would have loved to skip a trip to Washington.
Had the Cubs been able to solve Strasburg, they would have earned one night’s sleep in their own bed before heading to Los Angeles for the NLCS, which starts on Saturday night. But the security provided by Hendricks’ consistency — built around his version of a devastating changeup — is the next best thing to laying your head on a familiar pillow.
“He’s not shy of being in these situations,” Rizzo said. “We have to go out and score some runs for him, plain and simple. He’ll be ready to go, we’ll be ready to go, and we go from there.”
You may remember Hendricks from his work in Game 7 of the World Series last year. Or maybe his job against the Dodgers in the 2016 NLDS-clinching Game 6. Or maybe you’ve heard that he led the NL in ERA a year ago.
That ERA crown wasn’t a fluke. He has used his ability to throw strikes and get movement on pitches to compile a 2.94 ERA over 590 career innings. He’s happily worked in the shadow of Jake Arrieta and Jon Lester the last three seasons but deserves to be more of a name brand.
Hendricks is fine with this being the age of triple-digit fastballs.
“That’s what the fans love, and that’s fine with me,” he said. “I just love going out there and competing, especially with this group of guys, and doing whatever it takes to win. That’s all I care about.”
Maddon confirmed he could use Jose Quintana in the bullpen in Game 5, just as he brought in Lester behind Arrieta trying to win Game 4. The Cubs fully expect to see Max Scherzer out of the Nationals’ bullpen behind Tanner Roark or Gio Gonzalez, or both.
“Nobody thought it was going to be a three-and-done-type series,” Lester said. “It’s two heavyweights going at it. We’re going to the last round. We’re going to figure it out.”
It’s advantage Hendricks before the first pitch. After that, it’s anyone’s guess. That’s October baseball at its best.
Phil Rogers is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.