The Toronto Blue Jays figure to be in for any number of additional twists and turns as this most mercurial of seasons stretches on through the summer.
But, barring a big push into the post-season, it’s increasingly easy to believe the most significant development of 2014 will be the emergence of Marcus Stroman.
On a day when the Blue Jays could have fallen to .500 for the first time since mid-May, the 23-year-old righty tossed a gem, fanning five Texas Rangers over seven scoreless innings to help the Jays register a 4-1 victory.
Given Toronto (50-48) still has 64 more games to play, it might seem like a stretch to call this a critical victory. Consider, though, what the mental state of the club would have been if the standings on Sunday morning served as undeniable evidence of how far they’d fallen.
This team—which had lost nine of its previous 11 outings before Saturday—was 14 games over .500 on June 6, and to see the reset button officially pushed on that once-sparkling record would have been a poignant and painful reminder of how precipitous the slide has been.
Thankfully for the Jays, Stroman wasn’t going to let that happen.
“I knew we needed a win today,” he said.
That fortitude was never more evident than in the top of the fourth inning. With the game still scoreless, the Rangers (39-58) landed runners on first and second with nobody out. Given the way Toronto has struggled to put runs on the board, it would have been very discouraging to fall behind, even by a run or two.
With a firm understanding of the situation, Stroman reached back, struck out consecutive batters, then got former Jay J.P. Arencibia to softly ground into a fielder’s choice. It was a great escape for a young man who seems to find another gear when he needs it.
“He has a way of dialing it up in crunch time,” said Toronto manager John Gibbons, who watched Stroman set down 12 in a row starting in that fourth.
The show of strength from Stroman (5-2) seemed to embolden the Jays, who plated a pair of runs in the bottom of the fourth. Colby Rasmus, who’d reached on a single, burned around the basepaths to go from first to third on a wild pitch from Texas starter Colby Lewis (6-7). First baseman Dan Johnson, playing in just his fifth game with the big club, swatted a double to deep right-centre, cashing Rasmus. After an Anthony Gose bunt moved Johnson to third, second baseman Munenori Kawasaki sent a two-out bouncer up the middle that was good enough for an infield hit, pushing Johnson home.
It wasn’t pretty, but it was just what a team desperate for offence needed.
The Jays tacked on two more in the seventh when Dioner Navarro singled home Melky Cabrera and Johnson picked up his second RBI with a sacrifice fly that scored Jose Bautista.
Stroman was lifted after seven innings and 107 pitches and while Texas scored a run off Brett Cecil in the eighth, Dustin McGowan came on and eventually whiffed Jake Smolinski with the bases loaded to end the threat.
Usual closer Casey Janssen, to the surprise of many, didn’t come out for the ninth and after the game it was revealed he’d been suffering from a virus or possible food poisoning.
While Janssen hopes to be available for Sunday’s rubber match, it was up to Aaron Loup to guide the Jays through the ninth on Saturday. After a leadoff walk, Loup got a big double play and one final harmless fly out to clinch a win that—temporarily, at least—stanched the bleeding.
“We desperately needed that today,” Gibbons said. “Hopefully we can build on that a little bit.”
For his part, Stroman said he understood Gibbons’s decision to lift him despite the roll he was on. However, when asked whether or not he felt—in the moment—that he had more in the tank, Stroman answered with a tight smile and a head-nod.
“Yeah, I got a lot left in there,” he said.
Regardless of how this season ultimately breaks, that’s fantastic news for the Blue Jays.