HOUSTON – The Toronto Blue Jays added Francisco Liriano for the rotation plus Scott Feldman and Mike Bolsinger for depth Monday, but one of the best things they can get over the season’s final two months is an extended return to form by Marcus Stroman.
He was certainly at his best in a 2-1, 14-inning loss to the Houston Astros, setting a new career high with 13 strikeouts while allowing just a run on three hits and a walk over seven dominant innings. If he pitches anything remotely like this from here on out the Blue Jays are going to be in pretty good shape.
"Best I’ve ever seen him," said Russell Martin, whose homer in the ninth inning sent the game into extra innings. "Just an electric fastball, the cutter/slider was awesome, curveball was good, he mixed in some changeups, too. Just overall, he looked composed on the mound. I told him he was looking like Pedro Martinez out there. He was nasty."
Martin prevented Stroman from ending up a hard-luck loser with his solo shot onto the train tracks in left field off closer Will Harris. It was the Blue Jays’ first run since the fourth inning of Sunday’s 6-2, 12-inning loss to the Baltimore Orioles.
But there was no follow-up as Chris Devenski delivered 4.1 innings of perfect relief, striking out seven in a row at one point, and Michael Feliz followed with a clean 14th. Feldman, who threw 38 pitches over two innings for Houston on Sunday, surrendered a leadoff single to Jose Altuve before Carlos Correa knocked him in with a double to win it. R.A. Dickey, Tuesday’s starter, was in the bullpen warming up.
"For his team he went out there," an appreciative manager John Gibbons said of Feldman.
The end result didn’t make for an ideal debut.
"I would rather go out there and throw myself then have one of the starters go down," said Feldman. "I felt fine when I was out there, I just didn’t make a good pitch."
The loss was all the more painful for the Blue Jays given that they’re going to need some help. Having burned through much of their bullpen Sunday, they used everyone but Jason Grilli on Monday. Roster moves are imminent.
"We’re strapped, we’re hurting," said Gibbons. "Games like this, if you win them, it feels a little bit better, but games like this can set you back because our pitching staff is gassed. Hopefully we can survive this. … We’re going to have to do something, we’re going to have to get a couple of arms because we’re basically down to nothing down there."
The Blue Jays were without Troy Tulowitzki, who is nursing a chip fracture in his right thumb and planned to give Josh Donaldson the day to rest his troublesome hamstring, but he came on to hit for Ryan Goins in the 12th, grounding out to short.
"It’s kind of late right now and I’m grinding trying to stay out there," said Donaldson. "I wanted to be able to take the day but once it got to a certain point I wanted to try to give it a chance, maybe hit a homer right there or something, be able to win the game. I wasn’t successful. But I feel like we should be ready to go (Tuesday)."
Up until the Martin homer, Doug Fister with six shutout innings and relievers Tony Sipp, Pat Neshek and Ken Giles silenced the Blue Jays offence, nearly making Altuve’s solo shot in the sixth on a 1-2 curveball stand up. Giles froze Michael Saunders with men on the corners in the eighth, but then the Astros gave up that edge before a sparse gathering of 20,623 at Minute Maid Park.
The Blue Jays struck out a club record 22 times, surpassing the previous high of 19, accomplished twice.
"We haven’t necessarily swung the bats the way we have in the past month or so, but that’s baseball," said Donaldson. "It’s going to happen, we’ve had some pretty decent pitching thrown against us. Today, obviously I didn’t have a ton of at-bats, but there was something that was making our hitters a little bit uncomfortable, I don’t know what it was, but we’re a better team than how we performed today and we’re going to come out (Tuesday) and look to have a better game."
Stroman did more than his part, generating both ample swing and miss and weak contact, and continued a correction for him that began during an uneven June 26 outing against the White Sox when he first introduced a streamlined delivery.
In six starts since July 1, Stroman has allowed 15 earned runs over 41 innings for a 3.29 ERA with 43 strikeouts. Certainly Monday’s performance strengthened those numbers, but as the tweak to his delivery becomes more deeply ingrained – he eliminated a hand pump up to his head at the beginning – perhaps he’s made a definitive corner turn.
"I feel like I’ve done a good job of taking care of my body," said Stroman. "I feel stronger now than I’ve felt the entire year, I feel like I’ve only been getting stronger, just happy with the way my pitches have progressed from the time I was struggling. I feel like I’m hitting on my off-speed pitches a lot more, my lanes a lot better and my adjustment in my mechanics has made everything much easier. Just looking to stay where I’m at and continue."