TORONTO – The on-field correction for Marcus Stroman started during a strong Canada Day outing against the Cleveland Indians, and the way the Kansas City Royals kept pounding the ball into the turf Wednesday night, it sure seems like he’s turned a big corner on his recent struggles.
Still, an argument can be made that the more meaningful bellwether of his gains came in the way he responded when he found himself in trouble during a 4-2 Toronto Blue Jays victory that capped a three-game sweep of the defending World Series champions. Twice the game could have opened up on Stroman, and if this was May or June it very well might have, but both times he responded by shutting the door authoritatively.
That’s why after Brett Eibner caught a 94-mph four-seamer and lined it over the wall in left field in the eighth to tie things up 2-2, the Blue Jays were able to respond, getting a Michael Saunders go-ahead RBI single and Russell Martin run-scoring double in the inning’s bottom half to deliver the winning margin.
“That tells me my stuff is where I need it to be when I need to have it,” Stroman said of extinguishing Royals rallies in the sixth and the eighth. “I feel like I’m able to dial it up when I need to, and the more and more comfortable I become, the more and more comfortable I’m becoming in my new delivery and I feel like all my pitches are becoming more consistent. I’m in a great place right now, and looking to keep that going into the second half.”
Roberto Osuna pitched the ninth to earn his 17th save and close out a fifth straight win for the Blue Jays, who improved to 48-39, a season-best nine games over .500, before a crowd of 39,971.
Stroman, having refined his delivery to eliminate a hand pump to his ear at the beginning of his windup, was a deserving winner after allowing two runs on three hits and a walk over eight dominant frames. He struck out six and induced an astonishing 14 groundball outs, thanks to the cleaner mechanics that allow him to consistently drive his sinker down, and generate a sharper break on his cutter/slider.
“Anytime you have a lot of movement in your delivery, there’s always the possibility of getting out of whack, more movement means more moving parts,” said pitching coach Pete Walker. “For him, simplifying the delivery concentrates him on getting his hands out on time, because sometimes when his hands are high, he breaks high and sometimes a little late. With his height, he has to do everything he can to stay on top of the baseball. By lowering his hands a little bit, simplifying the delivery, minimizing his head movement, getting his hands out on time definitely makes a difference.
“It puts him in position to be more consistent.”
Following the Eibner homer, Stroman induced a grounder to second by perennial thorn Alcides Escobar before striking out Jarrod Dyson to end the inning.
Even more impressive was the way he choked off a Royals rally in the sixth, after an Eibner full-count walk broke up a perfect-game bid and Escobar caught a fat 1-0 sinker and dumped it into left-centre for a triple. A poor relay throw nearly ended up in the Blue Jays dugout but Stroman slid to corral the ball before Escobar could charge home. “I was late,” he said. “I wasn’t a good role model on that play.”
That halved a 2-0 Blue Jays and left the tying run 90 feet away with none out, but Stroman got weak grounders from Dyson and Alex Gordon with the infield in before striking out Whit Merrifield to strand Escobar.
“That’s as good as you’re ever going to see him,” said manager John Gibbons. “He had everything working, sharp, really good breaking ball, you name it. … We’ve seen him do that time after time. The walk and then the triple, he pitched out of it. That’s huge, but he’s confident now, he looks like the old guy.”
Added Walker: “Tonight, the confidence level matched the stuff.”
Royals starter Ian Kennedy was good, too, over six innings of 10-strikeout ball, but the Blue Jays managed two runs against him on Saunders’ 16th homer, a solo shot, in the fourth and an Ezequiel Carrera RBI single that cashed in Junior Lake’s hustle double in the fifth.
Things didn’t settle until the eighth, when Edwin Encarnacion’s double off all-star reliever Kelvin Herrera set the stage for Saunders, who sent a 2-0 changeup up the middle to plate the go-ahead run.
“I’ve faced him before and when he throws mid to upper 90’s it looks harder than what it shows on the scoreboard,” Saunders said of his approach. “Just from my past experiences facing him I was looking hard but I do know his pitch is his changeup and once he showed me two changeups, 2-0, honestly I was just looking for a pitch over the plate and was able to adjust. I was sitting fastball and adjusted to the off-speed.”
That adjustment paid off in a big way, as did the adjustments Stroman has made over the past couple of weeks. The way his stuff played Wednesday suggests the worst may be behind him.