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Playoff learning curve proving steep for Strickland

Giants reliever remaining confident despite allowing four home runs

SAN FRANCISCO -- These days, Hunter Strickland is straddling a thin line between boldness and masochism. The rookie reliever's right arm is clearly filled with rocket fuel, capable of delivering triple-digit fastballs on a regular basis. But throughout this postseason, left-handed hitters have punished those pitches, regardless of their speed.

Entering Game 3 of the National League Championship Series on Tuesday (1 p.m. PT on FOX Sports 1), Strickland knows he cannot back away from the pitch that gave birth to his big league career. But after watching him serve up four home runs over his first four playoff appearances, the Giants are wary of continuing to deploy Strickland against the competition's top left-handed hitters.

"He's made some mistakes," manager Bruce Bochy said. "We're working on things. I know he feels awful about giving up another home run, and we may have to tweak things. But this kid's still going to be part of our sixth, seventh inning. I think with his equipment -- it works -- and his mentality, he can handle what's happened. He just made a mistake."

Four mistakes have, in fact, defined Strickland's brief postseason career. In Game 1 of the NL Division Series in Washington, Strickland entered in the sixth inning with a three-run lead. He gave up solo homers to Bryce Harper and Asdrubal Cabrera, both on fastballs, vowing afterward to challenge Harper with the same pitch should he face him again.

That opportunity came four nights later in Game 4. Again, Strickland threw fastballs to Harper. Again, Harper smoked one of them well over the fence.

By Game 2 of the NLCS, Strickland had altered his game plan, jumping ahead of Matt Adams with consecutive curveballs in the eighth inning of a tie game. But as soon as Strickland came back with his signature pitch, Adams jolted it out of the park.

The rookie's ERA now stands at 8.31 through four playoff games. Strickland has given up only five hits, but four of them have been home runs. He planned to watch video before Game 3 to make sure he is not tipping his pitches.

"It's a little different here than in the Minor Leagues," said Strickland, who did not make his big league debut until September. "These guys, they get paid to hit. And if you make a mistake, they're going to capitalize on it. It's pretty obvious I made a couple of mistakes."

Because Strickland is so mature for a rookie -- he is 26 years old -- and blessed with such physical gifts, it is easy to forget that he has yet to conquer professional baseball's learning curve. Drafted out of high school in the 18th round in 2007, Strickland bounced from the Red Sox's organization to the Pirates and Giants, arm trouble stalling his progress along the way. He spent his 22nd birthday recovering from right shoulder surgery, owner at that point of a 4.06 career Minor League ERA.

It was around that time that fellow Pirates farmhand Vic Black first met Strickland, sizing him up as a devoutly religious "southern boy" full of determination.

"He's one tough dude, mentally and physically," said Black, now with the Mets. "He's a freak, athletically. His approach in baseball is pure relentlessness."

Even back then, the qualities that Strickland have displayed this month were readily apparent. Black recalls rehashing outings with Strickland over lunch, wondering how batters could so routinely hit his upper-90s mistakes.

"You sometimes question what you're doing," Black said. "But you can get to a mindset where you go out and if you give up a home run in a crucial game, literally to be able to come out and warm up in the bullpen with the same thought like it never happened, that's a special talent."

It is also a dangerous mindset, as Harper, Cabrera and Adams have proven. But the Giants seem willing to sink or swim with Strickland.

This October, Bochy has committed himself to Santiago Casilla in the ninth inning and Sergio Romo in the eighth. Jeremy Affeldt and Javier Lopez have faced most left-handed sluggers toward the end of games, but when one has come up in the sixth or seventh inning, that has typically been Strickland's territory.

Whether Bochy alters his bullpen usage going forward remains to be seen, but one thing is clear: Strickland is not going to change the way he pitches.

"I'm ready," he said when told of Bochy's faith in him. "I'll make the adjustments and get better, and get back out there and compete."

Anthony DiComo is a reporter for Follow him on Twitter @AnthonyDicomo.
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