Making it in the big leagues

Jun. 16, 2014 @ 04:58 PM

Though his Major League debut occurred nearly four weeks earlier, Marcus Stroman completed his mental leap from Duke to baseball’s highest level on a sunny Saturday at Toronto’s Rogers Centre.

It was May 31 when Stroman retired three consecutive Kansas City Royals, the final two via empty swings on strike three, and walked off the mound knowing he’d return for the game’s second inning and more.

“I’m here,” Stroman thought. “I’m here and I’m ready to go. That’s when it kind of hit me.”

The first first-round draft pick Duke’s baseball program ever produced, Stroman climbed quickly through the Blue Jays minor league system in 2012 and 2013. He made his first big-league appearance three days after his 23rd birthday, on May 4 in Pittsburgh, out of the bullpen.

A trip back to Triple-A, following a rough outing or two, preceded Stroman’s return to Toronto for his first big-league starting assignment against Kansas City on May 31.

He’s pitched so well since then he’s solidified himself as part of the first-place Blue Jays’ starting rotation, which in turn has his already impressive confidence soaring.

“When I was relieving, I didn’t know if I was staying or I was going down,” Stroman said last weekend, sitting in the clubhouse at Baltimore’s Camden Yards. “Now that I’m in the rotation I’m here and I’m performing. I feel like I belong.”

Heading into Tuesday night's start at the New York Yankees, Stroman owns a 3-1 record with a 5.18 earned run average that is skewed by his shaky relief appearances. In his three starts since joining the starting rotation on May 31, Stroman is 2-1 and has allowed five earned runs over 18 innings (2.50 ERA).

Possessing a fastball that reaches the mid-90s and a sharp slider among his four-pitch repertoire, Stroman has struck out 17 in those 18 innings as a starter.

“He’s got a great arm,” Toronto manager John Gibbons said. “The biggest thing he’s got going for him is he’s a great competitor. He doesn’t back down. He’s confident. He’s been good.”

His competitive nature burns from all the times he’s been counted out. At 5-foot-9 and 185 pounds, Stroman is the exception in an industry that prefers its pitchers to measure more like basketball’s small forwards in the 6-4 or 6-5 range.

Big-league hitters are learning that overlooking Stroman is a mistake. Too often, they’ve left the batter’s box shaking their head after failing to solve him.

“When you get big league hitters to swing like he’s got them to swing, it’s impressive,” Toronto catcher Erik Kratz said. “It really is, especially coming out of a little guy like that. You don’t really expect that. I think that’s what really surprises guys and sets him apart from some prospects who should be in the big leagues and are in the big leagues.”

Growing up on New York’s Long Island, Stroman showed enough promise as a high school player that the Washington Nationals drafted him in the 18th round in 2009. Instead, he accepted a baseball scholarship to play for a Duke program that hadn’t been in the NCAA Tournament since 1961.

Stroman pitched and played the field, starting 83 games a position player. He finished his career No. 4 on Duke’s all-time strikeout list with 290, and his 3.27 career ERA is No. 6 all-time for the Blue Devils.

Even now, he is steadfast that it was the right decision to delay professional baseball -- off the field as much as on.

“Oh yeah 100 percent,” Stroman said. “I just don’t think I was ready out of high school. I matured mentally, physically in every aspect. I think that was definitely the right choice, going to school, working out there three years. Figuring out how to do the laundry and little things like that.”

Still, even after Toronto drafted him with the No. 22 overall pick in the 2012 first round and signed him to a contract featuring a seven-figure signing bonus, all was not smooth for Stroman.

In August 2012, two months after the draft when he was pitching in Class AA, Stroman tested positive for Methylhexaneamine, a stimulant with a chemical compound similar to amphetamines. The drug is in several supplements and some nasal decongestants, but it is on Major League Baseball’s banned substance list.

The positive test stemmed from his use of over-the-counter supplements, and Stroman served a 50-game suspension that spilled over into the beginning of last season. He owned up to his mistake, taking responsibility while saying he is confident he won’t make a mistake like that again.

“I’m past that,” Stroman said. “My family was around. The Blue Jays had my back. I knew I wasn’t trying to cheat the game.”

Stroman shook off the controversy to put together a solid 2013 season in Double-A. In 20 starts, he struck out 129 batters in 111 ⅔ innings.

He started this season at Triple-A Buffalo in the International League, where he struck out 45 batters in 35 ⅔ innings over seven starts.

The Blue Jays needed him in the bullpen in early May and Stroman joined them on a road trip through Pennsylvania. On May 6, he picked up his first big-league win when he allowed just one hit over 1 ⅓ innings at Philadelphia.

Following another scoreless appearance against the Phillies, things got rough. Two appearances on May 11 against the Los Angeles Angels and May 14 against the Cleveland Indians, Stroman allowed 11 hits and eight earned runs over three innings while striking out just one batter.

“I still wanted to throw all my pitches like when I was a starter not realizing that when you come in late in games you can’t set guys up like (when) you are starting a game,” Stroman said. “It’s just an adjustment that I didn’t make right away.”

Still, the Blue Jays knew they wanted him as part of their plans even though the bullpen appearances had been a bit rough.

“He had a couple of good ones and he had a couple that statistically weren’t great,” Toronto pitching coach Pete Walker said. “But if you look, the balls weren’t hit very hard. There were some ground ball hits. Some chopper hits. So it’s baseball. I’m sure had we left him in the bullpen he would have been successful and done a nice job. But we had more of a need as a starter. It allowed him to get his feet wet. It allowed him to go back down with some major league experience and the next time that he’s come up he’s been more effective and he looks real comfortable in the starting role.”

As a reliever or a starter, Stroman’s desire to succeed shines through.

“He’s done a great job,” Gibbons said. “He competes. He’s got that chip on his shoulder. He’s been told his whole life he can't do it. It comes back to his size. He’s proved a lot of people wrong.”

Now that he’s in the big leagues, Stroman continues doing things that will allow him to stay. Tonight, he’ll pitch before 150 or so friends and family members in the Bronx, back in New York where he grew up.

Such a stage could be a problem for a young player. Gibbons has no such fear for Stroman.

“He wants that,” Gibbons said. “I don’t think it will faze him a bit. Hopefully he’s good.”