NEW YORK -- Matt Strahm didn't have his best stuff. He didn't have his pinpoint command. Resolute as ever, the Padres' left-hander still strolled into the Bronx on Monday afternoon and struck out 10 Yankees in front of a packed house.
If it wasn’t already, it’s official now: Strahm is in the rotation to stay.
“That guy’s a starting pitcher,” catcher Austin Hedges said. “He won’t go back to the bullpen ever. He's too good.”
The Padres marked the franchise’s first visit to the new Yankee Stadium with Strahm on the losing end in a 5-2 defeat. Josh Naylor and Hedges hit RBI doubles to give San Diego a lead in the second inning, but Clint Frazier and Brett Gardner went deep in the bottom of the frame, with Gardner’s two-run blast proving decisive.
“Two pitches I'd like back,” Strahm said.
Ultimately, Strahm’s shaky second inning was too much for the Padres to overcome. But he bounced back emphatically. Strahm would retire all nine Yankees in his second trip through the order, and seven of his last eight outs came via the strikeout.
Strahm, who allowed three runs on four hits over six innings, adjusted to his early struggles by relying on his breaking pitches -- which confounded overeager Yankees hitters. In short: Strahm showed the kind of mettle that a good starting pitcher needs to show.
“He didn't come out like he has, where he's dotting corners from the get-go,” Padres manager Andy Green said. “Still, to right yourself in the right direction, to have four scoreless innings and give your team a chance to win the game, you can't ask anything more.”
After spending the 2018 season in the bullpen, Strahm has proven himself more than capable of handling a starter’s workload. He struggled in his season debut, but in nine starts since then, his ERA is 2.53.
Strahm has also reinvented himself entirely. Last season, he was a high-octane relief weapon, relying heavily on his fastball/slider mix. This year, he has used his curveball and changeup to great success, and he has backed off his fastball significantly.
“It's two different mentalities of pitching," Strahm said earlier this month. "I've got to be able to put that third and fourth pitch in your head. I take pride in not being able to let anyone, whether he's a left-handed hitter or a right-handed hitter, eliminate a pitch that I have.”
A season ago, Strahm’s fastball averaged 93.4 mph, and he used it for 58 percent of his pitches. This year, it’s 2.5 mph slower -- a product, Strahm says, of pitching for the long haul with a starter’s mindset. He’s using it only 41 percent of the time.
“He's a completely different pitcher,” Hedges said. “He had such a good fastball out of the bullpen. Now, he's able to mix and match so much more. When you have four plus pitches, he has so many options.”
That mix was enough to subdue the Yankees, whose bats wouldn’t come alive again until the eighth inning. Right-hander Craig Stammen surrendered a solo homer to Gary Sanchez over the short porch. Then, the Padres’ shoddy outfield defense coughed up another run.
Center fielder Wil Myers made an ill-fated dive for a Gleyber Torres line drive, which rolled to the wall for a double. Then Cameron Maybin singled Torres home, when the ball kicked away from Franmil Reyes in right field. All of Strahm’s efforts to keep the Padres in the game had come undone in the span of three batters.
Of course, one tough loss to the first-place Yankees doesn’t change the long-term trajectory for Strahm. He arrived at the 2017 Trade Deadline as something of a mystery, weeks removed from major surgery on his left knee. The Padres weren’t sure of it then, but they are now: He’s a starter. Potentially a very valuable one, with their rotation of the future still in flux.