SARASOTA, Fla. — While he warmed up for his first two innings of work this spring, Marcus Stroman couldn’t help but peer through the left field bullpen fence and watch the mountain he has to climb grow taller and taller.
Drew Hutchison was on the hill for the Blue Jays and he was pitching brilliantly, attacking the zone with 92-94 mph fastballs and striking out four of the seven batters he faced over two innings. It was a terrific performance and would end up standing in strong contrast to Stroman’s eventual two innings, which ended with four hits and two runs on his line.
Hutchison and Stroman, of course, are two of the horses in the race to win Toronto’s currently vacant fifth starter spot. Only one man will earn the job and with four pitchers in competition (Todd Redmond and Esmil Rogers are also in the running) every inning is crucial. That gave Saturday afternoon’s affair in Sarasota—won eventually by the Orioles, 9-7—a heightened importance.
“You can only do so much. Everything else is out of your power,” Stroman said after his outing. “Drew went out there and pitched unbelievable. I’m not looking at him and saying ‘oh yeah, I need to go out there and do better.’ It’s not like that at all.”
Well, it isn’t and it is. Spring Training games are an interesting animal. Players compete against their opposition but they also, perhaps more importantly, compete against their teammates. They compete for rotation spots, for bullpen jobs, for starts once the real games begin on the final day of March. They also try to prepare themselves physically for the six-month campaign ahead and to find their form after months away from the game. There’s a lot going on.
To be fair, Stroman was a bit hard done by on this sunny afternoon. He was flying through his first inning and had one foot in the dugout when he got Orioles leadoff hitter David Lough to push a dribbler towards second base that should have been the third out of the inning. But the Blue Jays infield couldn’t beat a sprinting Lough to the bag, extending the frame. That led to Stroman walking Nelson Cruz and throwing a slider up in the zone to Chris Davis who took it to the left-centre field wall for a two-run double. It was a stark reminder of how quickly a positive outing can turn on its head.
“That’s baseball, man,” Stroman said. “Stuff’s going to happen that you don’t want to. You have to be able to put your head down and deal with what comes forth. I won’t make any excuses at all. I should’ve gotten out of that inning.”
Stroman gave up a pair of singles in his second inning of work but managed to strike out two Orioles to escape without further damage, displaying flashes of the electric repertoire that has impressed scouts since his days at Duke University. He threw his fastball at 91-93 mph on both sides of the plate and mixed in his slider and changeup in the 85-88 mph range. He felt better about his slider than his changeup, which he had trouble keeping down in the zone, and he plans to use his next bullpen session to work out that kink. With so much riding on each appearance, these spring training adjustments can be critical.
Stroman is already at a disadvantage in the fifth starter competition, considering he has no major league experience on his resume and can be sent to the minors without being exposed to waivers, unlike Redmond and Rogers who are out of minor league options. There is also the often unfair and unfounded questioning of his slight stature, and whether he’ll be able to withstand the rigours of a full season’s starting duties while standing just five-foot-nine. But the gregarious Stroman, who has the words “height doesn’t measure heart” tattooed on his chest, doesn’t hear any of the noise around him.
“Not many guys have more confidence than he does right now,” Blue Jays manager John Gibbons said. “And that’s good.”
Hutchison, meanwhile, was fantastic and made a strong case for himself with every fastball he placed on the outside black and every slider he swept through the zone. He too could be optioned to the minors without being exposed to waivers, but if he continues to pitch this well throughout the rest of spring, the Blue Jays may not have a choice but to keep him on the roster.
“If he’s so much better than the other guys and he deserves the shot,” Gibbons said,” “it’d probably be stupid not to do it.”
This is an important spring for Hutchison who has been working hard throughout camp to put his promising career back on track. In 2012 he was laying the groundwork on a fine rookie season as a 21-year-old, allowing two runs or less in five of his first 10 big league starts while striking out 48 batters over 58 innings and walking just 20. But in the first inning of an outing against the Philadelphia Phillies on June 15 he threw a changeup and felt his arm start to scream. Like so many pitchers before him, he’d damaged the ulnar collateral ligament in his pitching elbow and would have to undergo Tommy John surgery, a career-saving operation for pitchers that comes with a rehabilitation price tag of around a year.
The healing process has been long and trying, but now that he’s on the other side of it Hutchison simply wants to get back to work.
“Any time you get an opportunity you make the most of it and if you don’t have opportunities you try to create them for yourself,” Hutchison said. “That’s something I’ve always tried to do regardless of what situation I’m in. I’ll continue to battle and go out there and perform.”
That’s all they can do, Hutchison and Stroman—take the mound and pitch. Compete against their opponents; compete against each other; compete against the odds. Because, like so much in life, the rest is out of their control.