Blue Jays’ Stroman caps off impressive spring in Montreal

Arden Zwelling and Hazel Mae discuss the pitching performances of Marcus Stroman and Roberto Osuna.

MONTREAL — After retiring all six batters he faced in the first two innings Friday night, Marcus Stroman pulled Russell Martin aside in the Blue Jays dugout.

To that point, the duo had leaned heavily on Stroman’s two-seamer—his best pitch, the weapon he’ll use more than any other this season. It’s been as good this spring as it has at any point in his young career. Hitters can’t help but go down and try to get it, more often than not spitting a weak groundball on the infield.

But when one pitch is working so well, and quickly resolving so many at-bats, it can be a little tricky to find a way to incorporate your others. And with his final two innings of the spring, Stroman wanted to work on his curveball.

“So, we started throwing more curveballs—and it was great,” Martin said after Stroman worked four efficient innings in his team’s 1-1 tie with the Pittsburgh Pirates Friday. “He was throwing strikes with that pitch, too.”

That’s a great sign for Stroman, who can feature six different pitches in any given outing and capped off a truly remarkable pre-season at Olympic Stadium, allowing five hits and nothing more while striking out two. He needed only 44 pitches, throwing 31 of them for strikes, to get 12 outs. More than half his outs came via groundballs.

It’s really what he’s been doing all spring. From his early dominance in Grapefruit League play, to his MVP-winning performance for the United States at the World Baseball Classic, to this brief layover in Quebec—Stroman’s been next to perfect.

“A lot of preparation went into it. And I couldn’t feel any better than I do now. I’m just looking forward to carrying this forward into the season,” Stroman said. “Everything feels great. I hope it feels as good as it does right now all season. But it’s baseball. You’re going to have those rough days. It’s just a matter of being able to bounce back from those days and just focus on the next one. But I couldn’t feel better.”

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It’s hard not to notice the confidence Stroman’s bringing to the mound. He’s worked quickly and aggressively all spring, filling the zone with strikes and varying his delivery to keep hitters off balance. Stroman says he adjusts the timing of his delivery based on what he’s seeing from hitters in the box, making his mind up as he goes about whether to come to the plate quickly or hesitate at the height of his motion.

It’s not as easy as it looks. It takes great strength in your lower body and core to be able to pause your delivery and still generate velocity while maintaining command. That’s why you don’t see many pitchers do it. But Stroman’s been able to make it work wonders for him this spring.

Friday night’s game also provided one of Stroman’s favourite elements of the game—an emotional atmosphere. More than 42,000 packed the stadium and made all kinds of noise throughout Stroman’s start, something the spirted 25-year-old got used to at the WBC.

“I love pitching in front of huge crowds,” Stroman said. “I feel like I’m able to get up more for those games. I feel like I’m able to feed off that. The more people, the better. I hope there’s 50,000 in Rogers Centre every single game I pitch this year.”

That’s unlikely. But if Stroman continues pitching like this, the Blue Jays will have a good chance to win whenever he’s on the mound, which certainly helps fill seats. Really, Stroman’s been on this tear since the middle of last season, when he was able to put a period of struggle with the feel for his two-seamer behind him.

Over the final three months of 2016, Stroman pitched to a 3.42 ERA across 16 starts, finishing the season with an MLB-high 60.1 per cent groundball rate. He was one of only 15 pitchers to throw more than 200 innings in the season, and he kept his HR/9 below one, a crucial stat for a shorter pitcher who made half his starts in Toronto’s hitter-friendly environment.

“You know what, you look at Stro’s career—it’s been a short career, he hasn’t been around that long—and he’s pitched very well for his team,” said Blue Jays manager John Gibbons. “Last year he had that rut—maybe a month, month and a half—early in the season. But other than that, he’s been as consistent as you could ask for out of a young kid. He’s pitched some really big ballgames for this team.”

And he’ll no doubt continue to going forward. It’s hard to imagine how Stroman could look much better heading into the 2017 season. He’s healthy, strong, aggressive and confident. And he’s ready to go to work.

“He’s been in complete control—of his mechanics and his emotions. Of everything. I like how he’s going about it,” Martin said. “I don’t see a reason why it shouldn’t stay this way for the whole year. He just looks like he’s mature out there. He’s learning his craft and he’s taking it to the next level.”


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