TORONTO – The early margin for error was nice and the victory was important, obviously, but it’s Marcus Stroman’s correction that matters most for the Toronto Blue Jays. With his sinker boring down through the zone, his fastball spotted to great effect and his breaking ball buckling knees, the right-hander carved up the Philadelphia Phillies over seven innings of two-run ball in an 11-3 thumping Tuesday afternoon.
“I’m not exactly where I want to be,” said Stroman, “but I definitely made strides.”
Josh Donaldson had himself a day with two doubles and a grand slam that capped a six-run third off Zach Eflin, the well-regarded prospect who had himself a big-league debut to forget. Edwin Encarnacion, Kevin Pillar and Ezequiel Carrera also homered for the Blue Jays, who bounced back from a listless shutout loss Monday by matching their second-highest run output of the campaign.
Still, getting Stroman right was the priority, and while the Phillies don’t scare anyone at the plate, especially with Maikel Franco resting a knee sprain, the type of weak contact he generated suggests the restoration of depth to his sinker.
“That showed me he’s back,” said manager John Gibbons. “His two-seam fastball, which is really his bread and butter now, it was moving down, that had kind of deserted him a little bit. I thought his breaking ball was much better today and even a few good changeups. He was into it, he looked confident, a really good outing for him.”
Stroman generated 11 outs on the ground and struck out six, a product both of the sinker and a much crisper slider, with more downward action rather than plane-to-plane movement. Both were focal points between outings, as he emphasized staying on top of the ball with his fingers on release, having been more off to the side in recent starts.
“I’m the shortest pitcher in the big-leagues and I realize that I have to be very conscious of pitching down in the zone, and I am,” said Stroman. “Everything I do in between starts is to get me to that point where I can be on top of the ball. A mixture of that and a mixture of being more consistent, getting rid of that middle slider pitch and going with that bigger and harder one just felt all around better, better command, better feel, just felt more comfortable out there.”
Since holding the Twins to a run over 7.2 innings May 18, he’d allowed 17 runs on 28 hits and seven walks in 16.1 innings over three starts, and the Tampa Bay Rays roughed him up for seven runs on 13 hits the start before his gem in Minnesota.
So he’d been in a pretty good rut.
“It would just come and go from inning to inning,” said Stroman. “It’s just staying inside your mechanics. The sinker is a pitch that the more you throw it, the more feel you have for it, but it can also work against you in that sense, when you lose the feel for it, you really lose the feel for it. So just doing everything in my power to make sure I’m staying strong through my core, when I’m doing that, that’s when I’m staying on top of the ball, staying through my lane. I know what I have to do to get to that point, it’s just a matter of consistency.”
Against the Phillies, Stroman didn’t allow a hit until Peter Bourjos’ infield single in the third, and he was promptly erased when Russell Martin cut the speedster down trying to steal second. The extent of the Phillies damage came when Jimmy Paredes spanked an RBI double in the sixth and in the seventh, when Cesar Hernandez whacked a poor two-seamer over the wall in right-centre.
In all Stroman allowed six hits and a walk in an important step forward, although a truer test of how his stuff played comes in his next outing, when he’s slated to start the Blue Jays’ upcoming series finale against the Orioles at Camden Yards.
“I really liked the slider today, I felt like that was the pitch he was working on to have some separation between the slider and the curveball,” said Martin. “Before it kind of looked like the slider and the curveball were starting to blend together, today you really saw two different breaking balls, and that was the key. He was getting hurt when he was leaving the ball up in the zone, in the middle of the zone, if he can just stay down or work on the edges, there’s no problem.”
The Blue Jays certainly had no problem with their offence, as Donaldson led an ambush of Eflin and kept pummelling the 22-year-old.
Donaldson doubled in the first and after a Michael Saunders walk, scored on a Martin single. In the second, Pillar led off with a solo shot, and Donaldson later cashed in a Jose Bautista walk with another double.
“We watched a little bit of film on him, and I was paying pretty close attention to Jose’s at-bat, and it looked like he wanted to throw his heater early on,” said Donaldson. “My first at-bat he gave me a fastball I could hit and hit it pretty well to right field and that started me on the right track. I was able to get some pitches to hit and I was able to take advantage.”
The knockout punch came in the third as Martin walked and scored on Carrera’s homer to right, while the bases subsequently were loaded for Donaldson, who promptly hammered a 1-1 slider for his third career grand slam.
“I was looking for a pitch I could hit and it was backup slider/curveball and it’s been a little bit since I’ve been able to recognize that pitch and recognize it backing up and still keep the ball fair,” said Donaldson.
Things were in cruise control from that point forward, although Saunders, who fouled a ball off his right ankle Monday, left in the third inning with tightness in his right hamstring.
“My ankle is pretty sore right now, and I’m thinking that honestly might be a reason why, trying to protect my ankle something else has to take over the workload,” said Saunders, who felt the tightness going first to third in the first inning. “This is just more precautionary than anything.”
He described himself as day-to-day, but after the game the Blue Jays optioned Aaron Loup to triple-A Buffalo and designated Scott Diamond for assignment, with two corresponding moves to come before the first of two under National League rules in Philadelphia on Wednesday. Utilityman Andy Burns might be one possibility and if the Blue Jays feel they need another outfielder, Dalton Pompey would seem to make the most sense now.
Notes: Blue Jays shortstop Troy Tulowitzki did some more work Tuesday and is on track to play in an intrasquad game Thursday in Dunedin, Fla. … Second-rounder Bo Bichette was among the handful of draft picks to report to the Blue Jays’ facility in Dunedin on Tuesday. Their signings should be announced soon. … Markham, Ont., native Jordan Romano returned from Tommy John surgery to throw a seven-inning complete game in his debut with single-A Lansing. He allowed just two hits, one a solo homer, with seven strikeouts in a 4-1 win. The Blue Jays recently converted Romano, a college closer, to a starter and he sat 93-95 in his outing. … Jon Harris, the 2015 Blue Jays first-rounder, struck out seven over five innings of one-run ball as the Lugnuts took the doubleheader nightcap 11-1.