TORONTO – I don’t trust Buck Showalter, and neither should Marcus Stroman.
One minute into Monday’s media availability and the Baltimore Orioles manager was complaining about the room being too hot: “Should have brought some bottled water in for the rocks,” he grumbled.
He then mentioned how proud he was of the way his team celebrated its wild-card win on Sunday: “I forgot. Somebody celebrated on our field last year or the year before,” he said, raising an eye-brow.
Couldn’t remember who? He knew full well it was the Blue Jays who beat his team 15-2 in the first game of a double-header on Sept. 30, 2015, at Camden Yards – then proceeded to tear up the visiting clubhouse.
When we last saw Showalter in Toronto he was being ejected from a game and shown on TV shaking his head in disgust as the Blue Jays’ Josh Donaldson spun away from a pitch that wasn’t as close to his noggin as he might have thought. (Oh, the burden on a man when he invents the game the way Showalter invented baseball! Don’t these mere mortals get it?)
Getting a crack at Rougned Odor and the Texas Rangers in the American League Division Series must surely be a tantalizing prospect for these Blue Jays, but beating Showalter and the Orioles would be a pretty fulfilling stepping stone.
Can’t these two teams get the hell out of each other’s way? I mean, seriously?
The Orioles secured the 2014 American League East title against the Blue Jays at Camden Yards in 2014; last season, the Blue Jays clinched against the Orioles at Camden Yards. Stroman was the starter in that game, because of course he was. The night before the Orioles clinched in 2014, Showalter took exception to Stroman hitting Caleb Joseph with a pitch, calling it “borderline professionally embarrassing.” Stroman added fuel to the fire by giving it back to Showalter as the Orioles manager waved his hands dismissively in Stroman’s direction. So it made sense that Stroman would pitch the clincher.
And now here we are. Again.
There are several storylines in Tuesday’s American League Wild Card game, but familiarity is at the root of much of it. This will be Stroman’s second start in five days against the Orioles, who touched him up for nine hits and four runs over seven innings in a 4-0 win on Sept. 29. He faced the Orioles in close proximity once more earlier this season, lasting just 3.2 innings in a second start in the span of 10 days.
In choosing Stroman on regular rest, manager John Gibbons overlooked left-hander Francisco Liriano, who buzz-sawed the Orioles for 10 strikeouts over 6.1 innings on Sept. 28 and would have been working on his extra day.
This despite the fact that the Orioles’ .234 batting average against lefties is the second-worst in the Majors, ahead only of the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Familiarity was part of the reason for that, too. The Orioles have hammered Stroman this season, posting a .344 team average against with 33 hits and four home runs.
“Big game … I’ve seen him do it before,” was one of the first comments Gibbons made when he was asked why he went with Stroman over Liriano, who will be available out of the bullpen along with Marco Estrada with the usual ragged crew that finished the regular season running on fumes. For emphasis sake, Gibbons repeated himself, later.
Stroman and Liriano were the only candidates to start, and Stroman said he found out Monday morning. Liriano seemed neither surprised nor disappointed. This was essentially the same reaction he had when Gibbons, pitching coach Pete Walker and general manager Ross Atkins told him the team was going to a six-man rotation, part of a staff meeting to go over a radical plan to nurse Aaron Sanchez through to the end of the regular season.
“I’m ready for the bullpen,” said Liriano. “It’s Stro’s turn.”
When the Blue Jays acquired Liriano from the Pittsburgh Pirates, many thought the team would put him in the bullpen right away to address a season-long Achilles heel, a weakness in left-handers created by Brett Cecil’s inconsistency. The thinking in some quarters was that making Liriano a slider, fastball guy would maximize his effectiveness out of the bullpen and cut down on some of the command issues that plagued him as a starter with the Pirates.
Liriano shook his head side to side emphatically when asked if he would simplify his arsenal out of the bullpen – which, if the Blue Jays advance, could be his destination for the rest of the fall.
“It depends on the situation when you come into the game, what pitches you use,” Liriano said. “I’m ready to use all my pitches.”
The AL East has been a meat-grinder at the best of times, but this season was something else. The Orioles, Blue Jays and Boston Red Sox all took turns holding down first place en route to making the playoffs; the New York Yankees, meanwhile, threw everything out of whack with a mid-season infusion of youth. And perhaps there was a message, there: For the most part the teams in this division have had the same core lineups for the past two seasons and the same pitchers.
“No secrets,” Gibbons said, shrugging. “It’s going to come down to who executes.”
Orioles wild-card starter Chris Tillman’s earned-run average against the Blue Jays in four starts this season is almost 2.50 runs per game less than his career average. In two starts at Rogers Centre his ERA is 2.70, compared to a career mark of 7.01. Familiarity seems to have helped him, too.
Which brings us back to Stroman, whose initial run-in with Showalter in 2014 was a dress rehearsal for what became ‘The Stro Show’ after the pitcher’s dramatic return from injury last season. In many ways, Showalter’s reaction that day also set in motion the narrative that saw the Blue Jays become one of the least-liked teams in the Majors en route to becoming significant again – because of course it would.
Orioles, Blue Jays. Blue Jays, Orioles. Marcus Stroman and Buck Showalter. Stro Show? Nah, this is the pilot. This is ‘The Buck and Stro Show,’ and let the mind games begin.