Estrada untouchable with record 13 straight strikeouts

May 29th, 2024

SAN DIEGO -- In November, was a waiver claim. Now, he's striking out everybody he faces.

Seriously. Everybody.

In the Padres’ 4-0 victory on Tuesday night at Petco Park, Estrada struck out all three Marlins he faced in the ninth inning. They were his 11th, 12th and 13th consecutive strikeouts (over the course of three outings), setting a record that spans at least the entirety of the expansion era.

“It's kind of hard to believe,” Estrada said. “Still sinking in. I just feel like I did my job.”

Using a devastating upper-90s fastball, paired with a tight slider and a split-fingered changeup that he calls a “chitter,” Estrada struck out five straight Reds to end his outing on Thursday. Then he punched out five more Yankees on Sunday.

With his second strikeout Tuesday, he surpassed the Phillies’ José Alvarado for the most strikeouts in a row by a pitcher since at least 1961. (Play-by-play data isn’t fully available before then, so it’s impossible to know the all-time record.) Estrada finished the night by tacking on a 13th straight, for good measure.

“It's an elite fastball,” Padres manager Mike Shildt said. “Tonight, he was throwing some splitters that were filthy. The command of the secondary pitches, coupled with a special fastball in the zone -- that's what gets you 13 straight punchouts.”

Estrada was at his own birthday dinner in early November when he received a call from his agent letting him know he’d been placed on outright waivers by the Cubs. His 2023 season, in no uncertain terms, was a rough one. Between Triple-A and the Majors, Estrada walked an unsightly 38 batters across 39 1/3 innings. A few days later, he was claimed by the Padres.

“We knew the stuff was there,” pitching coach Ruben Niebla said. “It was just a matter of how consistent he can be in the zone.”

Now? It feels like Estrada lives in the strike zone, with a 7-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio this season. All it took was a mechanical overhaul and a complete reinvention of his two offspeed pitches. No biggie.

With Tuesday’s outing, Estrada lowered his ERA to 0.55. He has punched out 18 of the past 21 hitters he has faced. All this for a 25-year-old right-hander from Palm Desert, Calif., with 16 1/3 innings of big league experience before this season.

“He's been able to do that without having Major League success to lean on and knowing what that looks like,” Niebla said. “To me, that's the most impressive thing. His emergence as a big league reliever is happening right in front of our eyes.”

As early as January -- at the pitchers’ camp hosted by Joe Musgrove -- Padres staffers thought they had something special in Estrada. Niebla and Co. passed that message along to him, assuring him there were high-leverage innings available. (When the Padres sent Steven Wilson to the White Sox in the Dylan Cease trade, they were comfortable doing so, partly, because they believed in Estrada.)

Sure enough, Estrada has assumed the primary setup role for closer Robert Suarez. With Suarez unavailable on Tuesday, Shildt turned to Estrada for the ninth. He punched out Jesús Sánchez, Jake Burger (for the record) and Nick Gordon.

“I obviously only watched it on video -- live might even be better,” Marlins manager Skip Schumaker said. “That's real stuff. That Vulcan changeup -- or whatever he wants to call it -- is as good as I've seen. Couple that with a 99 mph induced fastball with a really good [slider], he's got three real pitches. He's closing on probably a lot of teams. He's really good.”

So good that it left Marlins hitters asking the question most of the baseball world has been asking as they’ve learned about Estrada this month.

“Did that guy get DFA’d?” asked Marlins first baseman Josh Bell. “How did the Padres get him?”

Informed of Estrada’s November waiver claim, Bell said: “That’s nuts. He had one heck of an offseason, I guess.”

Swarmed by reporters after the final out, Estrada did his best to stay composed. He had spent most of his career on the fringes, simply trying to break through. Now he’s setting records as one of the most dominant relievers in baseball. At one point, Estrada stumbled over his words, trying to explain his journey.

“Sorry,” he said. “I'm just nervous.”

He continued:

“I knew how it felt to be in the dark, knowing that it was a tough thing to get through. But that's where you find things, where you find a light.”