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Stephen Strasburg’s “flu game” reminded us of an unwritten postseason rule

When you’re in the postseason make sure you don’t poke the bear — especially a Strasbear.

MLB: NLDS-Washington Nationals at Chicago Cubs Jerry Lai-USA TODAY Sports

Last week, I wrote about how the pressure and stress of the postseason can positively affect the average velocity for most pitchers. Something I touched on but didn’t discuss all that much is that even without the change in velocity, there is an enormous desire to succeed when you reach the postseason. Everyone knows how important the playoffs are, so I don’t need to dive any deeper there.

Now, there’s the standard motivation and desire to win in the postseason that I just mentioned, and then there’s the motivation that Stephen Strasburg had as he took the mound for Game 4 on Wednesday night. Before we talk about that, let's rewind a bit to find out what got us here.

A disappointing loss in Game 1 — where Strasburg took the loss on two unearned runs off three hits and a walk while striking out 10 (which at the time was a Nationals postseason record for strikeouts) — then a solid outing in Game 2 by the bullpen after a rough start by Gio Gonzalez, and then another Nationals loss in Game 3 where Scherzer surrendered only one run off one hit and three walks through six-plus innings, had put the Nationals in a must-win situation for Game 4.

As soon as the Nationals lost Game 3, the rumor mill started churning, as many were willing to speculate that Strasburg would be starting Game 4 on Tuesday on short-rest. However, when the lineup was released to the media, Tanner Roark’s name was in the pitching spot. This split many peoples’ takes between anger that Strasburg wasn’t starting and concern that something must be wrong with him if he’s not starting a must win game.

The game ended up being postponed due to rain, so everyone was assuming Strasburg would start Game 4 on Wednesday, since he’d be getting his regular rest of four full days. However, after the game was pushed back, more information was learned.

With that news — that Strasburg was ill and would not pitch Game 4, with manager Dusty Baker instead opting for Roark to face Jake Arrieta in the must-win game for the Nationals — both social media and digital media went ablaze.

Adding to the cloud of negativity that came with this news was a false report that Strasburg turned down the chance to pitch in Game 4, which Nationals GM Mike Rizzo characterized as “inaccurate.” He went on to say that it was the coaching staff, not Strasburg, who made the final decision, originally, to go with Roark in Game 4.

Like he was some sort of china doll, Strasburg was ridiculed from almost every aspect of baseball culture. Everyone from former players to fans without a stake in the series and even some Nationals fans got in on the act, as well as various members of sports media and journalism.

One such jab at Strasburg came from retired Cubs catcher David Ross ­­­­— who is apparently some sort of expert on consistently dominating in the postseason, with his .250/.317/.500 slash line in 25 career postseason games and one timely home run in Game 7 of the 2016 World Series. As an ESPN analyst, Ross said, “If I’m his teammate and I run into him the next day, I can’t make eye contact with this dude. This is as bad as it gets for me as a teammate.”

During his career, Ross was considered one of the “clubhouse guys,” but as Michael Baumann of The Ringer pointed out, Ross didn’t call out many of the inappropriate actions taken by former teammates, such as Melky Cabrera who took a postseason suspension for PEDs in 2012, or Aroldis Chapman, who became Ross’ teammate less than a year after being accused of domestic violence. In fact, when the Cubs acquired Chapman after his domestic violence, Ross gave a mealy-mouthed “learning from our mistakes” response. Evidently, a starting pitcher calling in sick is where Ross draws the line.

I don’t want to call anyone’s specific tweets out, out of harassment concerns, but if you’re interested in knowing what various people on social media said in the few hours after the announcement was made, just search Twitter for “Strasburg” on October 10.

And as quickly as baseball Twitter went nuclear and threw their hot takes out there, news came on Wednesday that Strasburg switched to a stronger dose of antibiotics, received additional IVs, and was good to go for Game 4. In fact, he actually asked the Nationals GM Mike Rizzo if he could pitch, per New York Times MLB writer James Wagner.

With all the buzz in the air around this game, Strasburg wanted to leave no doubt in anyone’s mind as to what type of a pitcher he is — and more importantly, what type of competitor he is. He put up what will likely go down as the “flu game 2.0,” going full Michael Jordan. Over seven shutout innings, he allowed only three hits and two walks while striking out 12, breaking the record he set in Game 1. The Nationals went on to win the game, tying the series and forcing a Game 5.

They ended up losing that game and the series, but nobody gave the Nationals a better chance to advance than Strasburg, with the two unbelievable starts he had. And with that “flu game,” Strasburg reminded us the one cardinal rule of the postseason: Don’t give your opponent any reason(s) to be additionally motivated. Future Nats opponents should take note — calling out Strasburg’s competitiveness and saying he’s not a good teammate could lead to a repeat of Game 4 of the 2017 NLDS.

In case you missed the legendary performance by Strasburg in Game 4, here’s a GIF version that gives you the gist of his outing.


Ron Wolschleger is a pitchaholic and a Contributing Writer for Beyond the Box Score as well as Bless You Boys. You can follow him on Twitter at @FIPmyWHIP.