David Lennon is an award-winning columnist and author who has been a staff writer at Newsday since 1991.
TORONTO - The final piece to the Blue Jays' transformation from wannabe AL East champ to World Series favorite didn't come from Oakland, Detroit or Colorado.
In all probability, that player arrived from Dunedin, with a layover in Buffalo, and was back on the Rogers Centre mound again for Wednesday night's series finale against the Yankees.
That player is Marcus Stroman, the former Patchogue-Medford star who put a serious dent in the Yankees' division title hopes -- if not derail them completely -- with his seven scoreless innings in the Blue Jays' 4-0 victory.DataPro sports draftees from Long Island
It was Stroman's third start since coming back from ACL surgery and easily his best as he limited the Yankees to five hits -- four of them singles -- in improving to 3-0 with a 1.89 ERA. This was the final meeting between the top two AL East contenders, and after splitting the first two games, that made Wednesday night critical to the Jays' grip on first place.
Toronto felt it had the right guy for the job in Stroman.
"I've never seen the kid rattled," Blue Jays manager John Gibbons said. "So you don't have to worry about that. He was the perfect guy for this game."
As it turned out, Stroman became a once-in-a-lifetime choice, as the victory made him only the third pitcher in the modern era (since 1900) to win his first three starts of the season in the month of September for a first-place team. And it's been a while. The other two are George Merritt, who did it for the 1901 Pirates, and Warren McLaughlin accomplished the feat the next year for the same team.
So it's pretty rare, and makes Toronto's 22-year title drought seem like the blink of an eye. But the only passage of time Stroman had been focused on was his five-month rehab process, which still wound up considerably shorter than the original March prognosis of season-ending surgery.
Apparently, Stroman took that as a suggestion rather than medical fact and has returned to give the Jays another ace-quality starter for the September playoff push. It's almost unfair. The Yankees showed up for this critical series without Masahiro Tanaka, who suffered a Grade 1 hamstring strain last Friday against the Mets, then were forced to use a pair of emergency starters in converted reliever Adam Warren and the previously demoted Ivan Nova.
The Jays? They lined up David Price for Monday's opener, sandwiched in Marco Estrada Tuesday and happily handed the baseball to Stroman, who kept the Yankees in check through the entire 95-pitch outing. He struck out his first two batters on nasty sliders and retired eight straight before Didi Gregorius' third-inning single.
The night stayed pretty much on that script for Stroman, who used the slider early and often in getting bad contact along with his five strikeouts. In the fifth inning, when Greg Bird's leadoff single was erased on a nifty 3-6-3 double play, Stroman pumped his fists and slapped his thigh as the crowd roared.
"It's definitely a big part of my game," Stroman said of the emotional displays. "It's something I feel like I need to direct to be a positive energy, to help me bear down in the moment and pitch better. I pitch with a huge chip on my shoulder."
Pitching inside Rogers Centre also seems to help, where Stroman has allowed one earned run in his last 27 innings for a 0.33 ERA.
Dustin Ackley was the only Yankee to reach second base Wednesday against Stroman with his two-out double in the fifth, but he was quickly erased on Gregorius' routine grounder. Stroman protected a 1-0 lead until Russell Martin blew the game open with his three-run homer in the bottom of the seventh.
"He's an awesome competitor," Martin said. "He works fast, throws a lot of strikes. The team just plays better behind him."
As for surfing the adrenaline rush, Stroman was so fired up on his trips back to the dugout that Price made sure to put on batting gloves in preparation of his high-fives.
"I guess he's got soft hands," Stroman said, smiling.
That's a first-place problem the Blue Jays are thrilled to be dealing with now.