TORONTO – Marcus Stroman grinned at the recounting of that 'aha' moment in his last start.
It was the fifth inning and his Blue Jays were leading Texas 2-0. Stroman had struck out Rougned Odor and induced a groundout from Robinson Chirinos. He'd gone to a full count with on-base machine Shin-Soo Choo.
The 3-2 pitch was a sinking fastball. The opposing reactions told the story. Stroman turned, struck a pose with a glare and retreated to the dugout. Choo looked flummoxed at the plate, staring back at the umpire with confusion. This reporter, from an angled vantage point, wondered if Choo disagreed with the call. He didn't. The pitch had cut the heart of the plate. He was confused.
"Just something I've been working on," said Stroman of the sinker.
It must be nice. When Stroman throws fastballs, they're predominantly four-seamers. He can "spin" the ball with the best of them, as baseball people say in reference to his devastating array of curveballs and sliders. Stroman's changeup continues to develop.
By the time he's through, Stroman could be a five-pitch guy.
More importantly, in the immediate, is Stroman's barreling onto the scene not just as a piece of the starting rotation but as a frontline guy.
The sample size is small but take a look at four of Stroman's last five starts, excusing the hiccup he had on a Wednesday afternoon in Anaheim earlier this month.
On June 23 at home against the Yankees: Eight innings, one earned run on three hits, a walk and seven strikeouts. This start was made more impressive by the fact the Yankees were the first team to see Stroman for a second time and the first had been less than a week earlier when he struggled in the Bronx.
On June 28 at home against the White Sox: Six and two-thirds innings, two earned runs on two hits, two walks and six strikeouts. Stroman wasn't physically on the mound when a run against crossed. He left the game with a 2-0 lead, two on and two outs in the seventh. Dustin McGowan promptly entered and gave up a three-run home run to Dayan Viciedo, saddling Stroman with a no-decision in a game the Jays would eventually lose 4-3.
On July 4 on the road in Oakland: Seven innings of scoreless ball on three hits, three walks and seven strikeouts. The offence didn't score any runs that day and the Jays eventually lost, 1-0.
July 19 at home against the Rangers: Seven innings of scoreless ball, four hits allowed and five strikeouts.
Do the math and in those four starts, with Stroman still physically in the game, he's allowed one run in 28 2/3 innings.
Stroman, whose self confidence has been repeatedly discussed, is willing to admit to some surprise at how well things have gone since he returned to the big leagues and entered the rotation.
"Yeah, absolutely," said Stroman. "It's definitely been a ride. It's been extremely fun. It's definitely gone a lot better, because it's my first year and I feel really settled in and I feel like I belong."
Don't mistake the confidence for arrogance. The 23-year-old knows he has plenty to learn and he's willing to listen. Two veteran teammates in particular have taken Stroman under their wings. One is a pitcher, Mark Buehrle. The other is a hitter, Jose Bautista. Having a guy with 15 straight seasons of 10 or more wins and another with two-time 50-plus home run credentials in your corner doesn't hurt.
"Anything from mentality, anything from preparation to, hey, what would you throw in this count, to this hitter or what are you trying to do in this certain situation with guys on base? Just picking their minds like that and they're more than happy to help out," said Stroman. "Bautista being awesome this year; he'll come up to me out of nowhere, even during a game, and say, hey, when I'm hitting this is what I'm looking for, this is what I see, and this is how I'm adjusting in-game and this is how you should attack hitters."
Bautista sidled up to Stroman after his commanding performance against the Rangers. The superstar offered some praise. He also suggested areas in which Stroman could improve. Don't leave the kid satisfied.
Bautista repeatedly reminds Stroman to be quick with his pace. Fielders appreciate a pitcher who gets the ball back from the catcher and immediately toes the rubber.
Stroman has gone from potential trade bait to an irreplaceable member of the staff. He's making general manager Alex Anthopoulos look good for being hesitant to part with the Duke alumnus.
"To be honest, obviously it's just rumours and you don't know what's true, what's not," said Stroman. "It wasn't unsettling at all. I was just focused on getting here and dominating and pitching like I know I could. Trades are something that's a part of the game and it's not something that can rattle you if you over-think it."
Don't worry about Stroman wilting under the brighter lights of important September baseball. If the Blue Jays hang in the division and wild card races, he'll be looking forward to getting the ball every fifth day.
"Zero intimidation factor. I'm pretty confident," said Stroman. "That's where I want to be. The bigger the moment, I feel like the bigger I get up for the games and the better I play."