Giants flamethrower Strickland raises the heat in DC
Rookie escapes bases-loaded jam with 100-mph fastball, allows two homers throwing 97
WASHINGTON -- Sergio Romo's eyes flicked two lockers down, where a pair of garish white cowboy boots sat below a Bible and a set of ski goggles -- champagne protection -- in Hunter Strickland's locker. A 26-year-old rookie with seven games of experience heading into the night, Strickland had just squelched the most treacherous Nationals rally in Friday's Game 1 of the National League Division Series, leading the Giants to a 3-2 win despite giving up a pair of solo homers. His teammates stood in awe of Strickland's cyclone of a night.
"He's the man," Romo said, turning away from Strickland's locker. "He's got real stuff. He belongs in the big leagues."
As part of a Giants bullpen that wobbled, wavered and ultimately won, Strickland's performance seemed tremendously apt. At points of his eight-year slog through the Minor Leagues, including a stop in Class A ball as recently as this season, the right-hander almost certainly dreamed of moments like this: bottom of the sixth, bases loaded, two-run lead, power-hitting shortstop Ian Desmond at the plate.
Had San Francisco catcher Buster Posey called for a breaking ball in that moment, Strickland said later, he would have shaken his head. Posey did not, freeing Strickland to nod, rear back and fire a string of unbroken heat to home plate.
Ninety-nine mph, spit on for a ball. Ninety-eight high in the zone, swing and a miss. Ninety-nine near the outside corner, taken for a strike. And finally 100 mph running toward the plate's inside edge, eliciting a flailing swing from Desmond. Strike three.
"Those are pretty good fastballs," Nationals manager Matt Williams marveled afterward, as Desmond bemoaned his inability to put his "best foot forward."
"I know that I'm not going to back down," Strickland said. "I'm just going to go with what I've got, give it my best and see how it goes."
Strickland's night eventually meandered in a different direction, when Bryce Harper led off the seventh with a massive home run into the upper deck in right. Two batters later, Asdrubal Cabrera turned on a 97-mph fastball, redirecting it over the fence to draw the Nationals within a run of the lead.
After Ryan Zimmerman shot another long fly ball to center for the inning's second out, Strickland's evening came to a close. Jeremy Affeldt finished off the seventh, before Romo pitched around two singles in the eighth and Santiago Casilla contributed a perfect ninth. The Giants -- and their rookie flamethrower -- exhaled.
"Strickland got a big strikeout when he needed it," manager Bruce Bochy said. "Romo made a big pitch when he had to have it. And of course Casilla. The bullpen stepped up in a huge way today."
What Bochy failed to mention was that Romo and Casilla both came into the game boasting significant October track records; Strickland did not. As recently as five months ago, he was struggling against the likes of the Stockton Ports and Bowie Baysox, stumbling his way back from years of injuries and ineffectiveness in the Minors. By late June, however, Strickland had righted himself, earning a September callup to San Francisco. He appeared in seven games down the stretch, averaging 98 mph with his favored four-seam fastballs.
Bochy liked what he saw. The skipper loved what he saw, actually, trusting Strickland enough to place him on the playoff roster and turn to him Friday with everything on the line. The rookie responded with fastball after hit-me-if-you-can fastball, in an effort that, in Giants starter Jake Peavy's words, "saved the game."
"He seems to feed off of that type of stuff," Romo said. "The guy can handle it. We really believe that his potential's through the roof. With him on our side, we've got a chance."