PITTSBURGH – Marcus Stroman was barely in the clubhouse for an hour Sunday morning when manager John Gibbons summoned members of his beleaguered bullpen into his office for a pep talk.
Welcome to the Toronto Blue Jays, kid.
The message was “just make sure you remain confident out there,” said the top prospect, summoned Saturday night to help out a relief corps suddenly prone to coughing up late leads. “It’s a hard sport, you’re going to have times when you hit rough patches, and the one thing you can’t do is lose your confidence. You have to always know that you’re going to dominate no matter what, so he was just preaching that to us, and he’s got all faith in the bullpen, as he should because of the guys that are down there and how they’ve dominated over the last few years.”
Stroman’s big-league debut came hours later in a 7-2 victory over the Pittsburgh Pirates, surrendering a run and hitting a batter in 2/3 of an inning during the eighth. He admitted to being a bit amped up as he took the mound with his mom and girlfriend in attendance, and later described the range of emotions he was feeling at the end of a whirlwind day.
“Still really excited just to be here with the big club, happy that the Blue Jays have that confidence in me that they know I can get the job done, whether it be starting or in the bullpen,” he explained. “Still amped from getting in there today, and then just excitement to getting back on the mound again and dominating like I know I can. …
“This was the goal, this was a dream come true.”
Stroman, who turned 23 on Thursday, wasn’t expected to be a part of the relief corps having been groomed as a starter since he was drafted 22nd overall in 2012. The need at the moment, however, is acute with the first two games of an interleague series against the Pirates given away by shoddy relief work, and no turnaround in sight.
Closer Casey Janssen was due to leave for a rehab assignment at double-A New Hampshire later in the day and his eventual return will certainly help. But until then the rest of a reliable crew from last year – including Sergio Santos, Steve Delabar, Brett Cecil and Aaron Loup – must escape its current slump and avoid the type of defensive pitching that will perpetuate the struggles.
That’s why Gibbons decided to speak with the group.
“I just had some suggestions and ideas that I thought might help some things out,” said Gibbons. “I basically told them, ‘Hey, we’re going to need you. You guys aren’t going anywhere, there’s a lot of season left, you guys have been good in the past, you’ve been good this year, it’s just we’re in that little rut right now.’”
Stroman – 2-2 with a 1.69 ERA and 36 strikeouts in 26.2 innings over five starts with triple-A Buffalo – may get a shot at starting down the road, but for now he could see use in the bullpen in a variety of roles.
Relieving won’t be new for him, as he did some closing during his college career at Duke and some in baseball have described him as a potential Craig Kimbrel type in the bullpen. In the grand scheme of things, the Blue Jays want to give him a chance to start, but they’ve adjusted to the current reality.
Still, their rotation is uncertain after the loss of Brandon Morrow until at least July and with J.A. Happ taking the right-hander’s spot. Gibbons has also repeatedly mentioned how much he misses Dustin McGowan in the bullpen, so there may yet be dominoes to fall there, and Stroman said all the right things about how he fits.
“I’m just happy to be here,” he said. “I’ve had experience in the bullpen, I’m not worried about it, I feel like I can come in, that’s something I’ve done before in the past and that’s something I’m comfortable with.”
Stroman learned of his promotion Saturday evening, after he went to Niagara Falls with his mom and girlfriend following the Bisons’ 6-5 win, and his mom “somehow” learned of the promotion before he did. “She’s been saying for a little bit, ‘Oh, I’ve got a feeling,’” he relayed. “I’m like, ‘Mom, relax.’”
After speaking with Charlie Wilson, the Blue Jays’ director of minor-league operations, Stroman “was pretty ecstatic, I was jumping all around my apartment.”
“It was definitely a surreal moment,” he says.
Stroman’s day Sunday started at 5 a.m. after “no sleep. But I feel wide awake.”
Despite his efforts to block out such thoughts, a call-up has been “a little bit” on his mind since he threw six no-hit, one-walk innings against Louisville on Tuesday.
“It’s hard not to,” Stroman said. “But for the most part, I felt like I was able to stay in the moment and really focus on day-to-day. I was in Buffalo preparing for my start against Gwinnett (on Monday). That’s all I was focused on and it happened to work out where I got the call, and I couldn’t be more happy.”