CHICAGO -- In the city whose most famous athlete is renowned for the legendary "flu game," Stephen Strasburg fought off an illness of his own to produce a career-defining night for which he will long be remembered.
No matter what happens in Game 5 back in Washington on Thursday, Strasburg channeled his inner Michael Jordan in Wednesday's 5-0 win and delivered a clutch performance against the defending World Series champions. That provided the tonic the Nationals needed to extend the National League Division Series presented by T-Mobile, not to mention their season, one more day.
Strasburg held the Cubs to three hits and two walks over seven scoreless frames, breaking his own 5-day-old franchise postseason record with 12 strikeouts.
By the time Michael A. Taylor's grand slam in the eighth landed in the basket over right field to bust the game open, it had been decided that Strasburg's brilliant night was finished. The Nationals could have scored 25 more runs and they wouldn't have taken the spotlight off the right-hander following the biggest -- and arguably the best -- game of his career.
"I think you can put a lot into elimination games or you can choose not to," Strasburg said. "You try and do your very best to keep the approach the same. I like to think that any game that I pitch is the most important game."
The will-he-or-won't-he-pitch saga dominated the early hours Wednesday at Wrigley Field. The Nationals had announced Tuesday night that Tanner Roark would make the start thanks to the flu-like symptoms that had drained Strasburg for the past couple of days, raising more than a few eyebrows.
As whispers of Strasburg's availability began to leak out Wednesday morning, it became apparent that he would take the ball, a decision that -- all due respect to Roark -- seemed like an obvious one.
"Woke up this morning, and I wouldn't say I felt great, but I felt like I was better than what I was the day before," Strasburg said. "Games like this, you have to go out there and give it everything you have, whatever it is. So I called Mad Dog [pitching coach Mike Maddux] in the morning and said, 'Just give me the ball.' That's what he did."
"I could see the focus and determination in his eyes," manager Dusty Baker said. "When he came in the office and we talked to him, he's a man of few words, but the words he said gave us every indication that he was ready."
The Nationals felt confident with Roark slated to start, but Strasburg had been the best pitcher in the league since the All-Star break. It was only natural for the switch to bring the team's excitement to another level.
"When I got here, I checked the lineup and his name was in it," Jayson Werth said. "I was like, 'OK, here we go.'"
For the majority of Strasburg's career, the talk has often focused on innings limits and injuries, all causing some to wonder whether the right-hander would ever live up to the great expectations that have accompanied him since he became the No. 1 overall Draft pick out of San Diego State in 2009.
Wednesday's memorable performance accomplished something many believed to be impossible: He changed the narrative of a career that -- perhaps unfairly -- felt like it hadn't quite lived up to the hype.
Despite the enormous stakes, Strasburg knew his best approach would be to treat the start like any other. Ironically, it was the illness that may have helped him accomplish that feat.
"I think it probably was a blessing in disguise," Strasburg said. "I think my energy wasn't really through the roof, so it was easier for me to manage it. I just focused on one pitch at a time and going as long as I could."
That approach had worked in Game 1, when Strasburg struck out a then-franchise-record 10 while allowing only two unearned runs over seven innings. Only the Cubs escaped with a 3-0 win thanks to an ineffective Nationals offense.
On Wednesday, the unearned run the Nationals scored in the third inning was more than enough.
"The last time we played him, we tried to jump him early, but we didn't have a lot of success in Washington either," Cubs manager Joe Maddon said. "He's pitching absolutely at the top of his game right now."
Like aces of years past, Strasburg put his team on his back and carried it. He struck out Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo during a scoreless first, which became a bit of a trend after the two superstars combined to go 0-for-5 with five strikeouts and a walk against Strasburg in the game.
Strasburg worked out of a jam in the second, then struck out six of the next seven hitters, his changeup making big league hitters look foolish time and time again.
"He throws that fastball and it rises, and the changeup falls off the planet," Rizzo said.
With each passing inning, Strasburg's biggest battle was staying warm on the cold, windy, rainy night. If Baker wondered how his pitcher's body was holding up, he decided the less he brought it up, the better.
"We didn't ask him," Baker said. "Sometimes it's better not to ask and just look at his performance and look how he was dealing."
He certainly was, throwing the way an ace is expected to pitch in a big game. For Strasburg, there's never been a bigger one.
Mark Feinsand, an executive reporter, originally joined MLB.com as a reporter in 2001. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.