Stroman on mission vs. KC, Cueto (8 ET, FS1)
TORONTO -- Marcus Stroman loves these situations. Small in stature, but big in confidence, the Blue Jays starter craves the spotlight and wants his team to trust in him completely, even as Toronto's season has been pushed to the brink of a long winter.
"I'm like a little kid on Christmas Day," the 5-foot-8 right-hander said with a smile on Sunday, on the eve of his Game 3 start against the Royals in the American League Championship Series (7 p.m. ET air time on FOX Sports 1 and Sportsnet, with game time at 8 p.m.).
The kid with "HDMH" shaved into the back of his head -- he explained that "height doesn't measure heart" has been his lifelong mantra -- entered this season with high hopes and expectations for a breakout season. An ACL injury in the spring robbed him of that chance, and Toronto of his arm, for the first five months. And yet, here is Stroman, back, healthy, primed to take on the October pressure once more.
"It's absolutely remarkable," Blue Jays pitching coach Pete Walker said.
Remarkable is an apt summation for Stroman's comeback this season, and fitting for his transformation as a pitcher in 2014. Last summer, when the 24-year-old Stroman put his name on baseball's map, he made an incredible midseason transition to being a sinkerballer after being a blow-it-by-them pitcher in the past.
Come tonight, he will face Kansas City's Johnny Cueto with the Blue Jays facing an 0-2 deficit in this best-of-seven opportunity to reach the World Series.
Toronto is the 26th team in LCS history to fall behind 2-0 since the advent of the best-of-seven format in 1985. The Cubs became the 27th team when they dropped Game 2 of the National League Championship Series to the Mets, 4-1, on Sunday night.
Three of those teams advanced to the World Series (1985 Royals and Cardinals and 2004 Red Sox), and all three of them, like the Blue Jays and Cubs, lost the first two games on the road before mounting their comeback at home. For all best-of-seven series all-time (including the World Series), the team that has won the first two games has won the series 62 of 75 times.
Stroman smirked a little when asked if he would be in this position without having developed his now-signature sinker.
"It definitely helped," he quipped.
Getting a grip
It was July last year. Stroman had been in the Blue Jays' rotation for about a month and he was relaxing in his apartment in Toronto. Sitting on his couch, the right-hander was spinning a baseball in his hand, stopping here and there to examine and feel the grip of potential pitches.
Spin. Stop. Repeat.
Stroman does this often.
"I'm always playing with grips and trying to find new grips on the ball," he said.
A traditional sinker hold positions the index and middle finger between the seams, creating the most common two-seam spin out of the hand. Stroman never liked the feel of that, so he never used a sinker. He always wanted one, though, and plenty of pitching coaches had suggested trying to add the pitch.
On this particular night, Stroman found the traditional sinker grip, and then slightly turned the ball in his hand. The top knuckle of his middle finger rested on the seams. He stopped, squeezed the ball, examined the grip and, for the first time, what looked and felt like a variation of a sinker was comfortable in his hand.
Stroman could not wait to see if this experiment would net different results.
"The next day, I went and started throwing it, just playing catch with it," Stroman said. "It was doing what I wanted it to do. I didn't have to worry about maneuvering my hands at all or pronating out front. The grip was kind of doing the work for me."
Passing the test
Trying a pitch while playing catch, or even during a mound workout, is nothing compared to using it in a Major League game. Stroman was gaining confidence in his new toy, but he needed a nudge to begin seeing if it might be useful in his outings.
For Stroman's first eight starts last season, he threw exactly zero two-seam fastballs.
On July 19, a sinker finally appeared on his pitch charts.
In the fifth inning of Stroman's start against the Rangers, the right-hander worked to a full count against the dangerous Shin-Soo Choo. At that point, Blue Jays catcher Dioner Navarro put down a sign, calling for a two-seamer. Confused for a moment, Stroman peered in and saw the catcher again motion for the pitch.
"He puts it down and I was like, 'What?'" Stroman recalled. "I kind of stood there on the mound. He puts it down again and I was like, 'Really?' He put his hand down like 'Throw it. Let's go.' So, I threw it."
The pitch began heading inside on Choo, who stood and watched as the ball faded back over the plate for strike three. Choo turned and walked back to the dugout. On the mound, Stroman turned and let out a howl in celebration.
"I never had a heater that had that action on it," Stroman said. "All my heaters were straight, just straight and hard, straight and hard. So, when I saw that action on it, and I saw that it was pretty much the same velocity -- maybe a few miles per hour off -- I was like, 'This is going to be huge.'"
Stroman is now a sinkerballer. Since that first test run against the Rangers, the righty's use of the two-seamer steadily climbed and the percentages of his four-seamer rapidly declined.
In Stroman's first start of 2014, the starter logged 60.6 percent four-seam fastballs. That rate dropped to 39.3 percent in the July 19 outing against Texas, and was down all the way to 4.6 percent in his final start last year. On the other hand, his sinker usage jumped from non-existent to 5.6 percent on July 19 last year to 54.6 percent in his last start of '14.
This season, Stroman has thrown 45.6 percent sinkers and 5.5 percent four-seamers in his six starts, including the regular season and postseason combined. The sinker has, in turn, also helped improve the effectiveness of his cutter, curve and slider.
"It's been extemely important for him," Walker said. "The addition of the sinker, I think it's given him the ability to lower his pitch count, to get deeper into ballgames and to get ground balls."
After his improbable return to the mound this September, the right-hander went 4-0 with a 1.67 ERA down the stretch for the Blue Jays, helping them clinch the AL East.
In Game 5 of the AL Division Series against the Rangers, Stroman helped Toronto overcome its 0-2 hole to advance to the ALCS against the Royals, and he is ready for the big stage again.
"This is what you dream about as a young kid growing up," Stroman said. "I feed off the energy of the crowd. The bigger the crowd, the bigger the moment, I feel like I'm able to push myself."