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Fair or not, the reputation was there. It was there before, and it was certainly there Tuesday night and Wednesday morning.           

Stephen Strasburg was the guy who doesn’t pitch in October.

That’s gone now.

Fair or not, the reputation remains. It was there before this week, and it hasn’t been erased yet.

The Washington Nationals are the team that doesn’t win in October.

Strasburg wrote a different story Wednesday. Now the Nationals need to write a different story Thursday in Game 5.

They can end someone else’s season, just the way theirs ended in 2012 and 2014 and again last year. They can leave another fanbase disappointed or even angry, the way theirs has been all too often in this sometimes cruel month.

Strasburg made all that possible, with his seven brilliant innings in Game 4 of his team’s National League Division Series against the Chicago Cubs on Wednesday at Wrigley Field. The Nationals made all that possible, with a 5-0 win that set up up Game 5 at Nationals Park.

Now Strasburg is the ace who saved a season. Now the Nationals can go back to being the team with as good a chance as any to win it all, which is how a lot of us saw them when the regular season ended 10 days ago.

It all started with five words from Strasburg on Wednesday morning.

“Just give me the ball,” he said at a pregame press conference, repeating what he said he told Nationals pitching coach Mike Maddux a few hours earlier.

Strasburg doesn’t say much, as Nats manager Dusty Baker said in his own press conference. But those five words said plenty, and Strasburg’s seven brilliant innings against the Cubs said even more.

Just give him the ball. Strasburg has often pitched like an ace, ever since he struck out 14 in his 2010 major league debut. But could he act like an ace?

The shutdown that cost him a chance to pitch in the 2012 postseason wasn’t Strasburg’s idea, but plenty of people in baseball—especially other big-time pitchers—wondered why he didn’t speak up publicly against it. The partially torn pronator tendon that cost him the 2016 postseason wasn’t his fault, but it added to the reputation.

Because Strasburg pitched and pitched well, the Nationals were shaking hands Wednesday and could be spraying Champagne in Washington, D.C., on Thursday.

Because Strasburg pitched and pitched well, the Nationals were shaking hands Wednesday and could be spraying Champagne in Washington, D.C., on Thursday.Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Fair or not, it was there.

He was great when he pitched. But could you count on him?

So when the Nationals announced after Tuesday’s rainout that Strasburg wouldn’t pitch in an elimination game because he was “under the weather,” you can imagine what everyone thought. Actually, you don’t have to imagine.

As Ron Darling said right at the start of the TBS Wednesday: “There’s absolutely no one in the history of the game that has ever missed this kind of start…because of the flu.”

Yeah. By that time, we knew Strasburg wasn’t missing the start at all. The Nationals said a change in the antibiotics Strasburg was given had done the trick. He woke up Wednesday feeling better. He was indeed going to pitch.

Some people wondered how he would do. Some people probably hoped he wouldn’t do well.

I texted a friend and told him I thought Strasburg would pitch well.

“Once he’s on the mound, he’s usually fine,” I said.

He was a lot better than just fine, and you could see it right from the start. It was 1-2-3 in the first inning, with strikeouts of Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo. It was 1-2-3 in the third inning, with three more strikeouts.

It was domination, with a changeup the Cubs just couldn’t hit.

As TBS analyst Pedro Martinez tweeted after the game:

Pedro, by the way, had a 3.46 postseason ERA in his Hall of Fame career. Strasburg’s postseason ERA: 0.47 in three starts.

So yeah, Strasburg can handle big games. Yeah, he enjoys pitching in them.

No one ever should have doubted that.

“Games like this, you have to go out and give it everything you have, whatever it is,” Strasburg said.

Everything Strasburg has is quite often enough. He was 15-4 with a 2.52 ERA in his 28 regular-season starts this year. He struck out 204 in 175.1 innings. He has that fastball he can throw as hard as 99 mph, that slider he can throw at 91, that changeup.

Oh, that changeup.

Check out this tweet from Inside Edge:

So the best thing the Cubs have going for them in Game 5 is that Strasburg won’t be pitching again. But the Nationals still have Gio Gonzalez, whose 2.96 ERA ranked fifth in the National League. They have Max Scherzer, who will be on two days’ rest but is expected to be available out of the bullpen.

They have that lineup that dominated all season but hasn’t yet really shown up against the Cubs. Trea Turner and Bryce Harper and Daniel Murphy and Ryan Zimmerman and Anthony Rendon…it’s on those guys now.

They can make this their October, just as Stephen Strasburg chose Wednesday to make this his.

Whether the Nationals win or lose Thursday, what happened Wednesday will forever come up when we think of Strasburg. Just give him the ball.

They gave it to him. When he gave it back, their season was saved.

Now it’s up to the rest of them to figure out what they do with it.


Danny Knobler covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report.

Follow Danny on Twitter and talk baseball.

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