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Strahm continues to impress in relief role

Lefty stymies Dodgers in latest gem out of bullpen
@AJCassavell
August 27, 2019

SAN DIEGO -- There’s no difference, Matt Strahm insists. Sure, there are some subtle changes in the way he attacks hitters. But whether Strahm’s starting or pitching out of the ‘pen, the lanky left-hander is adamant that he’s the same pitcher. The numbers tell a different story. Entering Monday, Strahm

SAN DIEGO -- There’s no difference, Matt Strahm insists.

Sure, there are some subtle changes in the way he attacks hitters. But whether Strahm’s starting or pitching out of the ‘pen, the lanky left-hander is adamant that he’s the same pitcher.

The numbers tell a different story. Entering Monday, Strahm had faced 457 batters as a starter in his four seasons in the big leagues. He’d faced exactly that many as a reliever. The difference was stark.

As a starter: 5.06 ERA, 113 hits, 110 Ks
As a reliever: 2.76 ERA, 76 hits, 130 Ks

Strahm’s future is almost certainly as a left-handed weapon in the San Diego ‘pen. He reinforced that notion Monday night, as the Padres held on for a 4-3 victory over the Dodgers. Strahm pitched two dominant frames, striking out a pair in the seventh and using just four pitches to get through the eighth.

Box score

“That was as good as he's really been all season long,” Padres manager Andy Green said.

Since his arrival at the 2017 Trade Deadline, Strahm has insisted he’s happy in whatever role the Padres chose for him. They asked him to prep for a starter’s workload during the offseason, so he bulked up significantly. Through 10 starts, Strahm had posted a 3.21 ERA.

Then, things came unraveled. Strahm’s ERA ballooned by more than two full runs over his next five starts, and he was sent to the bullpen at the end of the first half. It wasn’t always smooth there either, but Strahm has now tossed seven consecutive scoreless outings.

“I'm still a firm believer I can do that as a starter,” Strahm said. “I can go six, seven, eight innings as a starter for this club. But I can also do that."

Strahm emphasized the word, an obvious reference to his dominant showing Monday against one of the Majors' toughest offenses. It was almost an acknowledgement that his chances of going back to the rotation are somewhat inhibited because of how good he can be in the ‘pen.

Still, it’s clear his last five starts gnaw at Strahm. He wants another shot at pitching in the rotation.

“I need them to not be hanging onto those last five starts I had and to give me a shot,” Strahm said. “For them to trust me from the first 10, that's who I am. I sat down with [pitching coach Darren Balsley]. We went over my last five starts. We found the flaw. We fixed it. I'm back to who I am. I need their trust, that's all I'm waiting for.”

Strahm wouldn’t share what fixes he made, but they're clearly working.

Still, there’s hard evidence that all four of Strahm’s pitches have ticked up significantly since his move to the bullpen. He gets a much higher rate of whiffs on his slider, too.

“The velo is up, obviously, in the bullpen,” Green said. “He can just go at guys with his absolute best stuff. He's not trying to hide anything. He didn't hide a ton in the rotation. But I think just his stuff plays up out of the 'pen in short bursts.”

On Monday, the Padres handed Strahm a lead under a strange set of circumstances. Pinch-hitter Austin Allen opened the sixth with a double off Dodgers rookie starter Dustin May. Allen, a recent callup, had faced May regularly in the Minors and he felt good about the matchup.

“He’s got such good stuff, don’t get me wrong,” Allen said. “But after seeing guys again and again and again, I’m going to take my chances, no matter how good they are.”

The Padres tied the game two batters later when Josh Naylor singled and A.J. Pollock’s throw to third base bounced through Justin Turner’s legs and into the Dodgers’ dugout. San Diego took the lead a batter later on Manny Machado’s RBI groundout.

But the lead seemed tenuous. The heart of the Dodgers’ order loomed, and San Diego needed a bridge of two innings to get to closer Kirby Yates. That’s where Strahm entered.

“He's a really, really, really valuable bullpen piece,” said Yates, who picked up his Major League-leading 38th save. “He's one of those guys that can be that hybrid reliever that can come out, give you two or three dominant innings. He gets the job done.”

Strahm punched out Max Muncy on three pitches to start the seventh, then he whiffed Corey Seager to end it. In the eighth, he got Will Smith to pop to center and Chris Taylor to bounce to first on a combined two pitches.

In that scenario, Strahm figured that Enrique Hernandez would take, so he poured in a fastball. Strike one. Then, Strahm painted a slider on the outside corner, and Hernandez skied a lazy popup to right. Strahm pounded his fist into his glove and skipped off the mound.

No matter what role he’s pitching in, Strahm is going to savor it.

“I have extra juice every night, because it's the big leagues,” Strahm said. “Twenty-first rounder, I've worked for everything to be here. Every night in the big leagues is an awesome night.”

AJ Cassavell covers the Padres for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @ajcassavell.