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Column: How the Washington Nationals botched what could have been their Kirk Gibson moment

Stephen Strasburg
Washington Nationals pitcher Stephen Strasburg takes the field before Game 1 of the National League division series against the Chicago Cubs on Oct. 6.
(Alex Brandon / Associated Press)

This could have been their Kirk Gibson moment.

This could have been a glorious day for the Washington Nationals, their celebrated pitcher rising from his sick bed to slay the defending World Series champions and stave off elimination for his team.

Stephen Strasburg might yet stop the Chicago Cubs on Wednesday. However, if he does, the moment might be remembered less for a storybook performance by a pitcher and more for a classic failure to communicate by his team.

The Nationals did neither their pitcher nor themselves any favors on Tuesday, when manager Dusty Baker said Strasburg could not start Wednesday because he was “under the weather,” without further explanation other than a vague reference to “mold around Chicago.” Baker also said Strasburg had thrown a bullpen session Tuesday, when he had not.

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Ask any veteran about the difference between the regular season and the postseason, and one adjective inevitably pops up: magnified. Everything about the postseason is magnified, and that includes the media attention.

So, when the team finally clarified Strasburg’s condition and said he would start on Wednesday, the pitcher already had taken a national beating. The first word Wednesday came from Strasburg’s agent, Scott Boras, who said Strasburg had been suffering from “flulike symptoms.”

The Nationals could have said as much Tuesday. They could have said Strasburg would start if he were healthy.

If there is one city in the United States where you do not want to be faced with the questions of “What did they know, and when did they know it?” that city is Washington.

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Baker said that when he left Wrigley Field on Tuesday night he did “not really” consider it a possibility that Strasburg could pitch. Joe Maddon, the Cubs’ manager, said he did.

“If, in fact, Strasburg was ill — and I believe that — there’s ways to be un-ill the next day,” Maddon said.

On Wednesday, the Nationals did not leave it to Baker to clarify Strasburg’s condition. General manager Mike Rizzo said Strasburg had been fighting fever, chills and sinusitis for a few days and had been getting treatment including antibiotics and intravenous fluids.

According to Rizzo, what Strasburg told the Nationals on Tuesday was this: “I’ll give you everything I got.” On Wednesday, after a different antibiotic at a higher dose, what Rizzo said Strasburg told the Nationals was this: “I want to start.”

There is nothing particularly sinister in that. But, in October, where reputations are made and labels are affixed, an absence of information breeds an infestation of speculation.

A Washington Post column painted his reputation as that of a $175-million ace, blessed with skill and lacking in guts — as the Post put it, “a finicky diva who must have every last detail in perfect position in order to pitch well.”

On ESPN, former catcher David Ross, the conscience of last year’s World Series champion Cubs, lambasted Strasburg, turning on him in a way few players turned broadcasters would ever turn on a player.

“If I’m his teammate,” Ross said, “and I walk in the clubhouse the next day, I can’t make eye contact with this dude. This is as bad as it gets for me as a teammate.”

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Rizzo and Baker rallied to Strasburg’s defense on Wednesday.

This was Rizzo’s answer to the question of whether pressure from teammates forced Strasburg to pitch: “I don’t think Stephen Strasburg cares about what the media thinks about him or says about him.”

No, the question was about whether his teammates pressured him.

“No, he felt obligated,” Rizzo said. “When he felt as good as he feels today, he felt much more like himself. He felt that he should pitch this game.”

Baker said the coaches did not pressure Strasburg.

“I’d be very, very surprised if he got any from his teammates, or any kind of peer pressure,” Baker said. “No, this was a decision made by him.”

Baker also said he did not regret his decision not to say what was wrong with Strasburg the day before.

“I didn’t feel the need to have to tell everybody what the exact problem was, or how sick he was,” Baker said.

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The storybook scenario would not have taken much more, really. Strasburg could have risen from his sick bed as a hero, in much the same way Gibson did for the Dodgers in Game 1 of the 1988 Word Series. The Nationals might even have been hailed for their gamesmanship in keeping the Cubs guessing about their starting pitcher.

Instead, the Nationals clumsily forced their pitcher into this unsettling dilemma: Is Strasburg pitching Wednesday primarily to save his team’s season, or to save his own reputation?

bill.shaikin@latimes.com

Follow Bill Shaikin on Twitter @BillShaikin


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