TORONTO – In his two previous starts heading into Wednesday night, Marcus Stroman gave up a lot of home runs. So many, in fact, that the total of six in those games, three in each, nearly equalled the seven he had surrendered in the 13 outings before that.
Clearly, something was up, so the exuberant right-hander did what he always does when things aren’t right, hitting the gym, rather than the video room, in search of answers. In this case, he didn’t feel like he was getting enough arm extension on his two-seamer, the offering that’s the foundation of everything he does on the mound.
"A lot of the work is not necessarily done in the bullpen, for me. I’m a weight room guy. When my body feels good, I feel like I’m good to go," he explained. "If I’m not able to get extension, it might mean that my T-Spines (12 vertebrae in the upper back that help support the ribcage) are off, or I don’t have the rotationals, and I’ll go to the weight room to get that right. Literally just work out.
"I go to the weight room and do exercises that are going to help me get to extension."
Stroman got plenty of extension during a 4-0 win over the Baltimore Orioles that was steadying for both him and his team, a correction that was thorough and convincing. Over the course of a career-high 119 pitches spread across 7.2 innings, he was as dominant as he’s been this year, allowing five hits and a walk with eight strikeouts.
Most crucially, his two-seamer was back down in the parts of the strike zone where it’s most miserable to hit, giving the Orioles hitters little to work with. He threw 74 of them, and in concert with a slider he used 20 times to generate eight swings and misses, was in control from start to finish.
"We need that, we needed that game desperately," said manager John Gibbons.
Contrast that performance with his last start in Texas, when the Rangers roughed him up for seven runs in four innings by batting .571 against his sinker and .500 versus his change-up. Typically, if his two-seamer isn’t right, everything else comes undone.
"When I’m not following all the way through or reaching all the way as far as I can, those are the (two-seamers) that leak over," said Stroman. "When I’m not getting extension, it’s usually either where I’m not engaged in my core, or kind of rushing, or I’m not setting my sights far enough out where I can get to extension. …
"I’m usually actually pretty good with in-game adjustments, but there are some times when it’s hard to find in-game."
Similarly, the Blue Jays look like a different team when their starter is in charge the way Stroman was. Rather than finding themselves in an early hole, as has happened so often this year, they got the jump on the Orioles this time when Jose Bautista slapped Wade Miley’s second pitch of the game, a 76.5-m.p.h. curveball, and sent it over the wall in right field for his ninth career leadoff home run.
Additionally, the homer was his first to the opposite field since Sept. 12, 2015 against the New York Yankees.
"It makes a big difference when you take the lead," said Gibbons. "We’ve been giving up a lot in the first inning, playing catch up, so it’s good to do it that way, tonight."
Justin Smoak continued his breakout campaign when he opened the fourth with his career-high 21st home run, a 430-foot laser to straight-away centre field. Stroman interrupted his session with media to stump for Smoak in the all-star balloting by fans – "He needs to be starting at first base, there’s no way he can’t be," said the pitcher – which demonstrates the level of appreciation Smoak’s teammates have for the consistency at the plate in a spectacular first half.
"It’s just trying to have competitive at-bats," said Smoak. "I was upset with the last at-bat I had tonight (called out on strikes in the eighth), but honestly, it’s just trying to stay competitive, hunt pitches and when I get them don’t miss them. Keep grinding away."
The Blue Jays pushed the game out of reach later in the inning when with the bases loaded and two out, Bautista ripped a 110.2-m.p.h. smash that ate up shortstop Paul Janish, who was late getting the force out at second and Jonathan Schoop bounced a relay throw to first that let a second run cross on the error.
But the key was Stroman keeping the game under his thumb, doing precisely what a team waiting for a run needed, pushing the Blue Jays back to 37-40 with a chance to beat the Orioles in a series for the first time in four tries this season on Thursday night.