‘Been here before’: Toronto Blue Jays’ Marcus Stroman carries his swagger into wild-card game
TORONTO — Shortly after being announced as the arm the Blue Jays will ride with their playoff lives on the line, Marcus Stroman walked to the Rogers Centre podium on Monday afternoon the same way he carries himself on the mound — with a swagger.
“I’ve been in this position before,” Stroman said. “I’m extremely confident. I can’t wait for this task, and we’re pretty excited about the opportunity.”
It didn’t matter that the 25-year-old bundle of emotion hasn’t fared well against the Baltimore Orioles this season — and that may be an understatement — Stroman will always bet on himself.
That swagger and mound presence is exactly what Jays manager John Gibbons took into account when deciding whether to go with Stroman, his young starter drafted and developed by the organization, or Francisco Liriano, the veteran trade acquisition who pitched so brilliantly down the stretch, including 6.1 innings of scoreless baseball with 10 strikeouts against the Orioles last week.
For different reasons, the Blue Jays likely wouldn’t be in Tuesday’s one-and-done American League wild-card showdown against the O’s in the comfy confines of home without either of them, but Stroman’s appetite for the big stage and his clear desire to get the ball in exactly these types of situations was what swayed Gibbons.
“We considered all of that,” Gibbons said. “It’s a one-game shot and guys are going out there and competing. You might have some of your better offensive players facing whoever’s pitching for the other side and not have very good numbers — are you going to sit them, too? Some guys rise to the occasion and I’ve seen Stro do that many, many times. I think he’s the perfect guy.”
In four starts against the Orioles this season, Stroman is carrying an ugly 7.04 ERA and has given up 33 hits in just 23 innings, including four earned runs over seven innings in a loss to Baltimore last Thursday.
If he’s not the perfect guy early, Stroman won’t last very long, especially with Liriano and Marco Estrada, who started on Friday at Fenway Park, both available out of the bullpen in the all-hands-on-deck win-or-go-home scenario.
“With Estrada and Liriano, you can get some innings out of them, too, it’s not just a hitter or two, maybe,” Gibbons said. “If the game goes extra innings, you never know, or something happens to Stroman early on, you’ve got some coverage and, hopefully, it at least gets you to your go-to guys late.”
Around this time last year, bat-flips aside, Stroman was one of the poster boys for the emotion and energy of the Blue Jays playoff run, almost unexpectedly after returning from a torn ACL in the final month of the season.
The 5-foot-8 righty provided two solid starts in the ALDS win over the Texas Rangers, a team currently sitting at home awaiting the winner of Tuesday’s clash, and then won Game 3 of the ALCS despite giving up 11 hits in 6.1 innings against the Kansas City Royals.
“Been here before,” Stroman said. “I feel comfortable knowing we were at this last year and had to go through the entire thing. There’s no sense of panic.”
Coming into this season, the expectations were sky high, but Stroman struggled out of the gate with a 4.89 ERA in the first half.
Then something clicked, and Stroman turned things around in the second half of the campaign, pitching to a 3.68 ERA and striking out close to a batter per inning.
“Yeah, I’ve definitely had an up-and-down year and battled a lot of adversity,” Stroman said. “I think I’ve done a pretty decent job at making adjustments throughout the year that were key for me and able to pay off down the stretch. I’m at a point now where I feel great, mechanics feel great, body feels great. I’m actually feeling at my strongest now, so I’m excited.”
Gibbons wasn’t the only manager with a mound decision to make, as Orioles skipper Buck Showalter decided to roll with veteran Chris Tillman, rather than use Ubaldo Jimenez who, similarly to Liriano, dazzled at Rogers Centre last week, throwing 6.1 shutout innings in an important win over the Jays, giving up just one hit.
While Tillman has held the Blue Jays bats at bay this season — he’s got a 3.63 ERA in four starts spanning 22.1 innings — it’s in stark contrast to his history at Rogers Centre, where the 28-year-old righty has been lit up on a number of occasions, leaving him with a 2-6 record, a ghastly 7.01 ERA, and 86 hits allowed over 68 innings in Toronto.
Tillman can’t really explain what’s changed this season.
“I don’t think I’ve gone out of my way to do anything different with these guys,” Tillman said. “It’s just the way the cookie crumbles sometimes.”
Showalter is hoping his starter doesn’t crumble Tuesday in front of an amped-up swarm of Jays fans, but he pointed out there’s more to the game than just the starting pitcher.
“I think we look at a certain finality with the starter, but these games, usually, have a lot of things going on with them that everybody gets to play a big part in it if it’s a competitive game,” Showalter said.
It’s easy to say that with one of the best bullpens in the game, anchored by Zach Britton and his unhittable sinker, one that has led to an 0.54 ERA and Cy Young talk.
Built for the powerful AL East, both teams live and die with the long ball and both have struggled to score runs, at times, down the stretch.
Playoff baseball, however, tends to come down to starting pitching, and the starter with the better stuff Tuesday night may provide the difference between a trip to Arlington for another game Thursday and a long off-season.
“It’s gotta help that we know everything about Tillman, but they know a lot about Stroman, as well,” Gibbons said.
“If Tillman’s on, he’s going to be tough. If Stroman’s on, he’s going to be tough. That’s, really, the way the game works.”