LANSING, MI — Halfway through his first inning of live baseball in nearly 12 months, Marcus Stroman had to step off the rubber and take a second to compose himself. He felt like he was out of breath.
The ever-energetic 24-year-old—who was making his first rehab outing for the Lansing Lugnuts after a borderline unbelievable five-month recovery from ACL surgery—was so excited about being back on the mound, so fired up by the exhilaration of doing what he’d been saying he would do every single day since he tore the ligament in his left knee this March, that he was pitching a mile a minute.
“I was a little amped,” a grinning Stroman said after his outing against the Great Lake Loons, an efficient 4.2 innings of no-hit ball. “I was like, I need to slow down a little bit here. I felt like I was working like Buehrle.”
Stroman was definitely pushing the tempo in that first inning, but he settled down in the second, finding a rhythm that allowed him to cruise through his 69 pitches (44 for strikes) with ease. He struck out seven while allowing just two base runners on a walk and an error, and looked like exactly what he was—a major league pitcher toying with single-A hitters.
Stroman spent the majority of his night buckling knees on called strikes while forcing plenty of awkward swings and weak contact. Even the two baserunners he allowed were dubious, as the walk was a borderline call that could’ve easily been strike three—the batter froze on the pitch and someone from the Lugnuts dugout yelled, “even he thought it was a strike!”—While the error was made on the lone hard-hit ball Stroman allowed all night, a liner directly at Richard Urena that bounced off the shortstop’s glove.
Of course, the statistical results of the game were never going to be what mattered Wednesday night. The important takeaway from the night was simple—Marcus Stroman is back on a mound.
“It felt natural. It felt like I was home. I felt very comfortable out there,” Stroman said. “All the work that I put in, you can tell that it shows. I felt great. All my pitches felt great. I’m ready. I’ve been through a lot this summer. But everything was to be in the position I’m in today.”
Stroman threw all six of his offerings for strikes, sitting in the 93-94 MPH range with his fastball, while showing great bite on his off-speed pitches. Stroman often worked backwards—perhaps expecting minor league hitters to be looking to attack—throwing a wealth of first-pitch change-ups. All that did was generate swing-and-miss early in counts, as Stroman finished the night with 10 swinging strikes.
Stroman had been working on improving that change-up during spring training before he was injured, and resumed that work over recent weeks with Blue Jays pitching coordinator Sal Fasano in Dunedin.
“I’ve been working on that pitch a ton,” Stroman said. “It’s made pretty good gains. I’m excited to use that pitch—on lefties, on righties. It’s going to be a really positive pitch for me.”
Stroman’s ability to field his position was only tested once, when the final batter he faced grounded to first and Stroman ran over the cover the base. The right-hander said he didn’t experience any trouble with his knee or with pitching while wearing a carbon fibre brace under his uniform.
Blue Jays advisors watched Stroman’s start closely, with Special Assistant Pat Hentgen and Director of Pro Scouting Perry Minasian looking on from the stands.
“I thought he looked really good. His pitches had finish. His slider was sharp. He back-doored his breaking ball to lefties, he threw some good changeups,” Hentgen said. “His velocity was low-to-mid 90’s. And that’s going to get better as he keeps pitching. It was good to see him covering first base. I didn’t think he favoured his knee at all. I thought overall he looked really good and threw really well.”
Hentgen said the biggest thing he wanted to see out of Stroman in his first start was command of his pitches, and that the 23-year-old showed him that with the exception of a couple pulled fastballs. Stroman agreed, saying his fastball command was the only facet of his game he’d be looking to improve going forward. Otherwise, Stroman feels like he’s ready to pitch in the majors tomorrow.
“As the game progressed, I felt like I was commanding a lot better. My stuff started to feel sharper as the game went on,” Stroman said. “It’s just a matter of getting all my pitches where they need to be. They’re right there.”
With this hurdle in his rehab cleared, Stroman now heads to Toronto where he’ll throw a bullpen at Rogers Centre on Friday before travelling with the team to Boston on Sunday night. He’ll throw one more rehab outing for the triple-A Buffalo Bisons in Pawtucket Monday evening, before officially rejoining the Blue Jays at Fenway Park.
To say Stroman is excited to be back around the Blue Jays doesn’t do his enthusiasm justice.
“I’m so happy. I can’t even say how excited I am just to be around the guys. Just to get back around the brothers and the team. It’s awful sitting there watching games in the summer and knowing that you’re supposed to be a part of something and you can’t be there,” Stroman said. “I can’t wait to get back to Toronto. That city’s on fire.”
Stroman says he’s been trying his best to remain calm and not get too over-excited as he approaches the final barrier in his rehab. It’s no easy task. For five months he’s been working every day to reach this point, telling anyone who would listen that he would pitch in September, even as many wrote his season off.
Now, with only one final rehab outing standing between him and a return to the big leagues, everything he’s dreamed of and obsessed about for months is coming to fruition.
“It just shows that all the hard work paid off. Nobody puts higher expectations on me than myself; and no one has more confidence in me than myself,” Stroman said. “I’m more motivated and more hungry now than I’ve ever been. And I’m ready to get back to the big leagues and contribute to this unbelievable team and to get to the playoffs. I’m ready to do something special.”
As if he hasn’t already.