Nationals shut out Cubs 5-0 to force Game 5 of the NLDS

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After all of the uncertainty and drama leading into Wednesday’s rescheduled NLDS Game 4 between the Nationals and Cubs, Stephen Strasburg arguably made the best start of his life. In doing so, he kept the Nationals’ playoff hopes alive and forced a decisive Game 5.

In case you missed yesterday’s whirlwind, Nationals manager Dusty Baker said he was sticking with Tanner Roark to start Game 4 instead of starting Strasburg, which drew a lot of criticism. Baker said Strasburg was under the weather, blaming that on mold in Chicago. Baker changed his mind late Wednesday morning and announced Strasburg as his Game 4 starter. Good thing he did.

Strasburg braved the heavy wind and misty rain, dominating the Cubs across seven shutout innings. He gave up just three hits and a pair of walks while striking out 12 on 106 pitches. The Cubs managed to get a runner to second base only twice.

The Nationals took advantage of a defensive miscue by shortstop Addison Russell in the third inning to score their only run. Trea Turner doubled with one out, Bryce Harper later drew a two-out walk and stole second. Ryan Zimmerman hit a grounder to Russell, who charged in but the ball skipped off of the heel of his glove, allowing Turner to cross home plate.

Cubs starter Jake Arrieta was not at all sharp, though he gave up just one unearned run and two hits with four strikeouts, but he also walked five. Jon Lester came in and admirably pitched 3 2/3 shutout innings of relief to keep the Cubs within arm’s reach of the Nationals. In the top of the eighth, Lester walked Ryan Zimmerman. Zimmerman, knowing Lester’s past difficulty throwing to first base, took a big lead. Lester threw over, a one-hopper to Anthony Rizzo. Lester threw over again, this time hitting Rizzo’s glove on the fly. Rizzo swiped a tag on Zimmerman’s foot but the umpire initially ruled him safe. Cubs manager Joe Maddon challenged the call and it was overturned, giving Lester — are you ready for this? — a pickoff in the playoffs.

After that feel-good moment for the Cubs, it got worse. Daniel Murphy singled off of Lester, so Maddon brought Carl Edwards, Jr. into the game. Edwards walked Anthony Rendon, then got a visit from pitching coach Chris Bosio. It didn’t work. He walked Matt Wieters and gave way to closer Wade Davis. After working the count 1-1, Michael Taylor drove a 95 MPH fastball to right field for a grand slam, pushing the Nationals lead to 5-0. Davis gave up a single and a walk before being replaced. Brian Duensing finally ended the inning, inducing a 3-1 ground out from Howie Kendrick.

Ryan Madson took over for Strasburg in the bottom of the eighth. He got Javier Baez to fly out, then couldn’t find his control, perhaps due to the rain. He walked Ian Happ, then hit Jon Jay. Madson recovered, fanning Kris Bryant — giving him a golden sombrero — and getting Rizzo to ground out.

Sean Doolittle got the call in the ninth to protect a five-run lead. Willson Contreras flied out to left, Zobrist flied out to right, and Russell struck out for a 1-2-3 ninth inning. The NLDS is all tied up at two games apiece.

The two teams will head to D.C. for the completion of the series with Game 5 on Thursday, starting at 8 PM ET. The winner moves on to play the Dodgers in the NLCS.

Pujols hits 701st career home run, connects for Cardinals

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ST. LOUIS — Cardinals slugger Albert Pujols hit his 701st home run, connecting Friday night against the Pittsburgh Pirates.

Pujols launched a slider from former teammate Johan Oviedo over the Big Mac Land sign in left field at Busch Stadium. The solo drive in the fourth inning made it 1-all.

Pujols faced Oviedo for the first time and made the 24-year-old righty the 456th different pitcher he’s homered against.

The St. Louis star hadn’t homered in a week since hitting No. 699 and 700 at Dodger Stadium last Friday. Pujols had gone 10 at-bats without a home run after two starts and one pinch-hit appearance.

The Busch Stadium crowd gave the 42-year-old Pujols a long standing ovation before he came out of the Cardinals dugout to tip his cap for a curtain call.

Pujols hit his 22nd home run this season for the NL Central champion Cardinals.

Pujols is fourth on the career home run list behind Barry Bonds (762), Hank Aaron (755) and Babe Ruth (714).