PHOENIX – Toronto Blue Jays manager John Gibbons kept urging observers to disregard Marcus Stroman’s dud first outing after the all-star break. The right-hander was nine days between starts when facing the Oakland Athletics, and it’s easy for a pitcher so reliant on a sinker to lose some feel over such a lengthy span.
He was far from sharp that night, but Gibbons’ suggestion was to hold judgment.
Stroman rewarded his manager’s faith Wednesday afternoon with eight dominant innings in a 10-4 victory over the Arizona Diamondbacks, regaining the form he showed in a pair of strong performances just before the break. With the sink back on his two-seamer and more bite on his slider along with better command, he repeatedly induced weak contact, particularly from the fourth through the eighth innings, when he allowed only three dinky infield singles.
“He was really good, he’s on a nice little roll,” said Gibbons. “Everybody wanted to hang themselves after that night in Oakland, but it’s a tough level of baseball, nobody is going to be good every night out, it’s just the way it is. He’s a big part of this.”
Burned for a run in the first when Junior Lake’s throwing error to third base from right field allowed Jean Segura to score, Stroman was largely in control from that point on. Darwin Barney, playing left field for the first time since 2006 with the U.S. junior national team, helped him maintain order in the second inning by chasing down a Yasmany Tomas smash to the wall and reeling in Patrick Corbin’s slicing liner.
A Jake Lamb double play on a two-seamer to end the third after consecutive one-out singles was the last real threat against him. He threw 99 pitches, 66 strikes, over his eight frames of work.
“To be honest, it’s not that much,” Stroman said of the difference in his sinker on good days and bad days. “It’s baseball at the end of the day and a lot of things can go your way on certain days and on other days they can’t. I know when I’m going well, I can tell by the hits, usually groundballs in the holes if I’m getting beat, and it’s a matter of sticking to what has gotten me here, and my strengths, and competing like I always do.”
The offence took care of the rest for the Blue Jays (54-42), who completed a two-game sweep of the Diamondbacks and moved a season-high 12 games over .500 for the first time before a Chase Field crowd of 20,076.
Josh Donaldson got things started with a two-run homer in the first, walked and scored in a two-run fifth and added an RBI double in the sixth. Barney, batting in the leadoff spot, singled and scored in the first, hit a sacrifice fly in the second and ripped a two-run triple in the eighth to help secure a 3-2 road trip.
“Early on you’re trying to get back to playing, some guys had some days off, and get back in the flow of things, then we were able to pick it back up quick,” said Donaldson. “We didn’t play bad in Oakland, we lost two games, but they won those games, we didn’t give those games to them. But it’s nice to finish strong here and we’re going to have a pretty good homestand here, hopefully it continues.”
Edwin Encarnacion, continuing the domination in the desert, chipped in the Blue Jays’ longest homer of the season, a 471-foot smash that left the bat at 112 mph, a two-run drive that capped a four-run eighth. His 26th of the season was also his 223rd with the franchise, tying him with Vernon Wells for third in franchise history, the distance and force on the ball leaving his teammates in awe.
“That’s a strong man,” said Donaldson.
Added Barney: “I think we all dream about hitting balls like Edwin … unfortunately very few guys can. It’s fun to have a front row seat to watch guys do that.”
Stroman allowed a run on eight hits with six strikeouts and induced a pair of double plays, and now has three starts of two runs or less and at least 6.2 innings in his past four outings. That’s the time a tweak to his delivery, eliminating an arm pump at the start of his delivery, began to take, and Wednesday he made the Oakland start look like nothing more than a blip.
“It looked to me that in his last start everything was middle,” said Donaldson. “When you’re throwing pitches down the middle, this is the big-leagues, guys are going to hit it. Today he was able to get strike one early, and then he was able to use his movement to get some swings and misses later on in the count. He did a good job all day.”
Against the Diamondbacks, Barney said, “It was typical Stroman when he’s on. His ball was heavy, he was pounding the strike zone, working quick, it makes it so easy on defenders when he’s being efficient like that. He’s a guy you really enjoy playing behind, he brings energy and energy like that, it wears off on other guys and spreads.”
Continued momentum on that front is pivotal with the ongoing uncertainty about how long Aaron Sanchez will stay in the rotation. Then there’s Marco Estrada’s back, although he’s ready to come off the disabled list and start Friday’s series opener against the visiting Seattle Mariners.
A series of roster decisions loom, with Estrada, Ryan Goins and soon Jose Bautista, who homered in five innings of rehab work at single-A Dunedin, due to return from the disabled list. And Brett Cecil’s ongoing unevenness – he surrendered a three-run homer to Tuffy Gosewich during mop-up duty in the ninth – is a concern. Stroman’s bounce-back, meanwhile, gave the Blue Jays one less thing to worry about.
Notes: Michael Saunders left the team to deal with a personal matter. He isn’t expected to be gone long. … Ezequiel Carrera missed a third straight game with irritation in his left tendon, but with off-days Monday and Thursday giving him a five-day break, he’s expected to be ready Friday night. … The Blue Jays must make a decision Thursday on Franklin Morales, who arrived at the 30th and final day of his rehab assignment Wednesday. One of the considerations was designating the left-hander for assignment, although another school of thought was taking a look at him at the big-leagues before deciding to cut bait. Either way, the Blue Jays are on the hook for his $2 million. … Barney felt pretty good about things after playing the outfield for the first time in pro ball. “Surprisingly it was pretty comfortable,” he said. The Yasmany Tomas ball “hung up there for a while, we’re in a controlled environment with the roof and we have a roof at home so it’s nothing I’m not used to. We’ve all played whiffle ball as kids and played outfield, it’s the same. The ones I was more worried about was moving in on a groundball, trying to put pressure on runners to not take extra bases, stuff like that. I was a little bit more comfortable with catching a fly ball.”