TORONTO – When a pitcher rebounds from a tough stretch with a vintage outing, John Gibbons will often remark that “he looked like the old guy.”
Rarely has Gibbons had occasion to say that about Marcus Stroman this year. The right-hander finished eighth in American League Cy Young last season only to struggle early then hit the disabled list with shoulder fatigue.
Entering play Friday, Stroman had a 6.80 ERA, and while he pitched five scoreless innings in his return to action against the Los Angeles Angels Saturday, the Blue Jays monitored his workload closely instead of turning him loose.
On Friday night against the Tigers, Stroman put together an outing with all of his hallmarks. He varied his delivery to keep Detroit’s hitters off-balance. He issued zero walks while striking out four. And he worked efficiently, generating 12 ground-ball outs on his way to a 90-pitch, seven-inning outing.
Yep, Stroman definitely looked like the old guy Friday with an outing that allowed the Blue Jays to take the series opener against the Tigers 3-2 and arrive at the season’s halfway mark with a 38-43 record.
“He’s got a little strut going,” Gibbons said. “When he’s bowing his neck and sticking his chest out, that’s when he’s doing his best. That’s just who he is.”
“I’m just back to being myself,” Stroman said. “That wasn’t me earlier in the year, so I’m just happy to be back. Body feels good, I feel in sync. Everything’s coming out very easily.”
At the plate, the Blue Jays managed just enough offence against their former teammate Francisco Liriano. Justin Smoak’s 10th home run of the season scored Kendrys Morales in the fourth, and Randal Grichuk drove home the Blue Jays’ third run later that inning with an infield single.
The bullpen picked up Stroman, as Seunghwan Oh struck out the side in the eighth before Tyler Clippard closed things out with his fifth save of the season. Ryan Tepera was not available to pitch after a strenuous outing Wednesday that resulted in a blown save, so Gibbons opted for Clippard.
“Oh’s been on a nice little roll,” Gibbons said. “He’s been getting a lot of strikeouts his last few outings and Clip’s having a nice year, too.”
As for Stroman, he allowed just five hits over seven innings, and at least a couple of those came on potentially playable ground balls. From behind the plate, Russell Martin was impressed by Stroman’s ability to throw all of his pitches for strikes.
“It just seems like he’s feeling better,” Martin said. “The ball’s coming out really nice. The tightness on the breaking pitches (is there). Good arm action on the change-up and the sinker’s playing nicely too, so I feel like he’s working on all cylinders now.”
Tigers hitters also saw some different looks from Stroman, who said he’s more comfortable varying his tempo now that the shoulder fatigue is behind him and “everything’s coming out easy.”
Stroman showed off plenty of hesitations and double-pumps while facing Nicholas Castellanos, who hit a grand slam off Stroman in a game the Blue Jays lost by one run last Sept. 8. This time it was advantage Stroman, as he retired Castellanos all three times they faced.
“Castellanos is a great hitter, man,” Stroman said. “He stays inside the ball better than maybe anyone in the big leagues. For my sinker he’s able to stay inside it, so varying tempos helps me because he has a leg kick. It allows me to be more aggressive in the zone by messing with his timing. I don’t have to be as fine with my pitches.”
As a team, the Blue Jays are clearly and understandably prioritizing the future over the present. The trade of Steve Pearce to the Red Sox for prospect Santiago Espinal will likely be the first of many for the Blue Jays this summer.
In theory, Stroman’s name could come up in trade talks, as GM Ross Atkins indicated that he’s willing to at least listen on controllable players (along with Stroman, Yangervis Solarte and Ryan Tepera could draw interest from rival teams). More likely, though, the Blue Jays hold onto Stroman, who doesn’t hit free agency until after the 2020 season.
Regardless, the Blue Jays needed a return to form from Stroman. Friday’s outing offers the strongest suggestion yet that he’s again where he should be.
“I’m back to being myself,” Stroman said. “And I’m excited.”