TORONTO – This is Marcus Stroman’s comfort zone. A warmup 20 minutes before the first pitch. A chance to start from scratch, on the bases and on the scoreboard.
And, most important, a full arsenal of pitches. Just like he showed off this spring in Coca-Cola Field for the Bisons.
Stroman was solid in his first major-league start for the Toronto Blue Jays last Saturday against Kansas City, throwing six strong innings and cruising to a 12-2 win. He started slowly but finished strong Friday in a much bigger test, against the defending National League champion St. Louis Cardinals.
The 23-year-old retired 11-of-13 men in one stretch and left to a standing ovation after giving up a leadoff single in the seventh to Tony Cruz. The bullpen preserved a 3-1 win as Stroman improved to 2-0 as a starter and 3-0 in the big leagues this season.
“The kid believes in himself. He just attacks you,” said manager John Gibbons. “He’s a great competitor. He’s on a mission.”
Stroman was as comfortable firing 95-mph BBs to the likes of Matt Holliday and Yadier Molina as he was in pulling the string on a wicked, 83-mph curveball that froze cleanup man Allen Craig for the final out of the fifth.
The Blue Jays called up Stroman on May 4 – five days after he threw six no-hit innings in Buffalo – and put him in the bullpen because it was in tatters.
Stroman struggled mightily in his last two outings, allowing eight earned runs over three innings. A big reason was that Stroman’s arsenal was hamstrung in the bullpen, where you can really only use a two-pitch repertoire like fastball/slider. Not so as a starter, where the off-speed stuff can be killer when combined with 95-mph heat.
“It’s been huge because I don’t necessarily feel I have to throw a fastball in a fastball count,” Stroman said. “Just being able to mix it up and keep guys off balance has been pretty good.”
Stroman gave up a leadoff walk and two hits in the first inning but gave up his lone run thanks to his defense. Jose Bautista threw out Holliday at home from right field and Brett Lawrie made a great jump-throw to first from deep second on Molina’s grounder that looked like an RBI single.
“That’s just huge momentum,” Stroman said. “It kind of puts you back in your groove and really lets you know your guys are behind you, kind of forces you to buckle down.”
In retrospect, it’s hard to argue with what the Blue Jays did with Stroman. He’s a huge prospect, their No. 1 draft pick in 2012 out of Duke. He had not yet pitched in Triple-A when camp broke. And after a month in Buffalo, certain corners (OK, this one) said he should go right into the big-league rotation.
The Blue Jays didn’t agree. General Manager Alex Anthopoulos told me a couple of weeks ago that Stroman’s short stint in the bullpen allowed the Blue Jays to get a lot of firsts out of the way. The first call-up, first win, first blowup on the mound.
And as it turned, out, his first return to Buffalo.
Stroman got his arm stretched out in two outings with the Herd and has had no problems back in the big leagues. He threw 93 pitches Friday, 60 for strikes.
“He’s got a ton of confidence, man,” Gibbons said. “I don’t think you can rattle him. He’s a great competitor.”
“He’s never looked out of place when he’s been on the mound,” Bautista said. “He’s never looked overmatched, overchallenged or too stressed out or scared at all.”
The Stroman phenomenon will quickly grow here as part of the Blue Jays’ first-place season. When he hit two strikes in the middle innings, the crowd of 33,528 responded with rhythmic applause seeking strike three. He fanned seven and walked two in the game.
And when Gibbons pulled him, Stroman tapped his blue glove as he walked toward the third-base dugout while the crowd roared.
“It was pretty special,” Stroman said. “I tried to do my best ‘tough man’ impersonation and try not to smile but it was definitely special walking off. To go out there and put my team in position to win was awesome.”
It was a big night overall for the Blue Jays as they celebrated the 25th anniversary of Rogers Centre, which opened as SkyDome on June 5, 1989. The Blue Jays, of course, haven’t been in the postseason since 1993 but that drought might change this year.
They have a six-game lead in the American League East – their biggest advantage in the division since the ’93 season that ended on Joe Carter’s famous World Series home run. They’ve won six straight, 15 of 17 and 20 of 24.
“There’s so much baseball left to be played that you can’t get caught up in that,” Gibbons said. “But the guys have been playing good all-around baseball. Really every phase. Things have been going our way.”