Stripling's success comes as Pearson hits IL

Veteran right-hander allows one run over six innings, strikes out seven

June 23rd, 2021

Each time adds another chapter to his 2021 turnaround, it seems a little more necessary.

Stripling reached that pivot point back in late May, with his ERA ballooned to 7.20. The progression seemed obvious at that point, that Stripling would slide out of the rotation the moment a healthy arm was ready and assume a long relief role, chewing up innings.

Tuesday’s 2-1 win over the Marlins at loanDepot park showed how much things have changed, with Stripling giving the Blue Jays another six innings of one-run ball, allowing just two hits and striking out seven. The bullpen even locked things down behind Stripling long enough for Lourdes Gurriel Jr. to drive in Cavan Biggio to put the Blue Jays ahead in the ninth, a moment that Gurriel has been searching for to spark his season.

Typically quick to describe himself as “not a big strikeout guy,” Stripling is striking out more than a batter per inning this season. His velocity has ticked up at times, but he’s still not one to overpower hitters, averaging 92.1 mph on his fastball. It’s how he’s using that pitch, though, that sets everything else up.

“If I can start everything at the top [of the zone], and either have it ride up with the fastball, or have the other stuff fall below," Stripling said. "That’s one of the keys to pitching -- being able to keep them off balance, changing speeds and then tunneling those pitches.”

At this point, Stripling’s name is written into the Blue Jays’ rotation with a black permanent marker, and the 31-year-old is suddenly part of the solution. He needs to be, too, given what’s happening behind him in the Blue Jays’ rotation.

Just prior to Tuesday’s game, the club’s No. 1 prospect, Nate Pearson, was placed on the seven-day IL at Triple-A Buffalo with a right groin strain. That’s the same groin that gave Pearson trouble through Spring Training, as he injured it early, then had a setback later in camp. That delayed his start to the season, and just as he was ramping back up, a shoulder impingement caused the hard-throwing right-hander to back off yet again.

It’s been a season lacking momentum for Pearson, who finally looked like he was starting to find his groove again over his last two outings in Triple-A before this groin injury. Pearson was supposed to embody the potential for true upside in this rotation in 2021, the top prospect finally ready to break through and dominate, but that simply hasn’t happened.

“In an ideal world, he’s pushing someone out of the rotation,” general manager Ross Atkins said Sunday, prior to this injury. “That would be fantastic if that were a scenario that we could be considering at some point. Not in the next start or two, but again, we can’t eliminate him from being someone who can help us get outs in some other way. At this point, we’re focused on him just remaining a starter.”

The Blue Jays leaving the door open to Pearson in a bullpen role in 2021 is important here. The same goes for Thomas Hatch, another right-hander capable of pitching in a Major League rotation. Of course the Blue Jays would rather have Pearson in their rotation, mowing through lineups every five days, but at this point, having Pearson throw in multi-inning bursts like he did so effectively in the 2020 Wild Card Series against the Rays is sounding more appealing.

If that’s the case, though, the Blue Jays need pitchers like Stripling -- and Robbie Ray and Alek Manoah -- to keep their rotation spots solid. The same goes for Steven Matz, who’s on the COVID IL. The rotation is in a fairly good spot right now, but just like the bullpen’s early success, it’s always risky to bet on that being sustainable.

Stripling’s recent run has given him a sense of momentum on the mound, and it’s easy to see. Compare Stripling in Tuesday’s win to the pitcher in April, and he’s pitching more aggressively, more decisively.

“It’s the confidence,” Stripling said. “Back in 2018, I was having success and you just kind of snowball more confidence as you have good outings and build off those. I was having a hard time over the last year-plus of building any confidence, because I wasn’t having success. Now you start to rattle off a couple good outings and you start to feel like you belong here, like you can get guys out here, all of that stuff that you might start lacking mentally when you’re struggling.”

As always, sustaining success in the big leagues is the hard part. Stripling has completely turned his season around, though, and his timing couldn’t be better for the Blue Jays.