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Jays’ Stroman overcomes nerves to shine in second Opening Day start

BT Toronto | posted Friday, Mar 29th, 2019

TORONTO – Minutes before taking the mound for the second Opening Day start of his career, Marcus Stroman began the familiar walk in from the Rogers Centre bullpen. At his side were pitching coach Pete Walker and catcher Danny Jansen. Over his jersey, he wore a vintage Blue Jays jacket that wouldn’t have looked out of place on Dave Stieb or Jimmy Key.

As he walked toward the Blue Jays’ third-base dugout, Stroman felt a mix of nerves and excitement.

“I don’t eat on days I pitch,” Stroman said. “I want to throw up from the second I wake up, but it lets you know that it’s game day. I love it. It gives me those exciting nerves that I need in my stomach.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Stroman’s first pitch of the afternoon missed the zone. His next three offerings weren’t much closer. Afterward, he acknowledged he was “a little too amped up” for the visiting Detroit Tigers.

But Stroman recovered from the leadoff walk with a couple of ground balls and just kept going from there. It wasn’t until the sixth inning that the Tigers even recorded a hit, and when Grayson Greiner whiffed on diving slider to end the top of the seventh inning, Detroit still hadn’t scored a run.

True to form, Stroman punctuated the strikeout with a roar and shoulder shimmy before returning to the third-base dugout for congratulations.

“I love these games,” Stroman said. “I love feeling the energy of the crowd from the second that I walk out there. I feel like as far as big-time games, there’s nobody I’d want out there more than me.”

Over the course of those seven scoreless innings, Stroman allowed two hits and four walks while striking out seven. All things considered, his season debut went about as well as the Blue Jays could have hoped. The Tigers won 2-0 Thursday, but just as importantly Stroman felt healthy and an injury-marred season receded a little further into the background.

Even setting aside his pitching line, Stroman felt physically capable of throwing all of his pitches. In that sense, Thursday’s start represented meaningful progress from 2018, when Stroman posted a 5.54 ERA while dealing with shoulder and blister issues.

“I had a pretty bad year last year,” Stroman said. “I did everything in my power to get right this off-season and I did. I’m just excited to toe the rubber every fifth day.”

When spring training began the Blue Jays had no way of knowing what to expect from Stroman, who ended last season on the sidelines because of a blister issue. Six weeks later, he’s where he wants to be physically.

“I’m back to throwing whatever pitch I want in whatever count,” Stroman said. “Last year I’d go into games and throw one pitch. Two pitches. I have six pitches.”

Granted, the Tigers project as a 90-loss team, so there’s risk in reading too closely into the results of any one game. But if Stroman can return to the level he pitched at in 2016 and 2017, when he averaged 200-plus innings per season, it would provide manager Charlie Montoyo with at least one stable arm in a rotation that includes plenty of uncertainty.

“Marcus was outstanding,” Montoyo said. “He had no room for error and he gave us a chance. That’s all you can ask from a pitcher. He was very good.”

For Stroman, the season-opening assignment was the second of his career along with 2016. Behind the plate, Jansen was experiencing the excitement and pageantry of a big-league Opening Day for the first time. Adding to the challenge, he had never caught Stroman in a big-league game.

Once some initial nerves subsided, Jansen worked well with Stroman, relying heavily on a breaking ball that generated 11 swinging strikes on its own. Afterward, Jansen called the pitch “a big weapon” for Stroman.

“It was just on,” Jansen said. “Any time we really needed it that was one we went to.”

The only pitch Jansen called more frequently was his two-seam fastball, a pitch that averaged 93 mph Thursday. Given the circumstances, the first pairing of Stroman and Jansen went smoothly.

“He’s still thinking out there and we’re still on the same page, but for the most part, he’s just going to roll with what I’ve got,” Jansen said. “A couple times he shook, but it’s pretty good so far. We’re going to keep building it.”

If Stroman sustains these results for long enough, contending teams will eventually restart trade talks with the Blue Jays. At that point, general manager Ross Atkins would have to seriously consider moving Stroman, who’s eligible for free agency after next season.

For now, those talks are likely still a ways off. In the meantime, the Blue Jays have a little more reason to believe that Stroman’s injuries truly are behind him.

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