BALTIMORE - As if he won't have enough to contend with in only his fourth big-league start, former Patchogue-Medford High School star Marcus Stroman will be facing another rookie Tuesday night at Yankee Stadium.
"Yeah," he said. "Tanaka."
There are rookies and there are rookies. Masahiro Tanaka is a neophyte in name only, with 172 professional starts in Japan, a $155-million contract with the Yankees and a leg up on the AL Rookie of the Year award and possibly the Cy Young.
Toronto's Stroman, 23, is a true rookie. Pitching against Tanaka in front of about 150 family members and friends will be the biggest start of his career . . . unless you count his first one (which he won) or his second one (which he won) or his third one, when he was battling illness and still pitched six strong innings in a tough loss.
They're all big when you're just starting out. But it is nice to come home and show the folks who know you that you've made it. "It's pretty surreal," Stroman said on Saturday in the visiting clubhouse at Camden Yards before the Jays faced the Orioles. "It's like when me and my best friend used to mess around in high school: 'I'll be pitching in Yankee Stadium in a couple years.' Just saying it, not knowing I would be there at one point. But now it's happening, so everyone back home is excited. Should be pretty exciting to pitch in front of family and friends at Yankee Stadium, which is like the mecca of baseball. It should be pretty awesome."
Stroman's overall numbers (3-1, 5.18 ERA) in his first big-league exposure are skewed by a five-game stint in the bullpen in early May. As a reliever, he went 1-0 but had a 12.79 ERA.
Called up again on May 31 for his first big-league start, Stroman allowed one run in six innings in a 12-2 victory over the Royals. On June 6, he again gave up one run in six innings in a 3-1 win over the Cardinals. Last Wednesday, Stroman gutted out six innings while under the weather and allowed three runs to the Twins in a 7-2 loss.
As a starter, he has a 2.50 ERA and has struck out 17 and walked two in 18 innings, a strikeout-to-walk ratio Tanaka would be proud of.
"Since he's been starting, he's been doing an unbelievable job for us," shortstop Jose Reyes said. "He looks more comfortable there. When he came out of the bullpen, it looked like that wasn't him because he's been starting all his life. As soon as they put him in the starting rotation, he's been like a different guy."
Said knuckleballer R.A. Dickey: "I am a Stroman fan. I think he's got a lot of moxie. He's a young kid with some good confidence, which is what you need. You don't need too much, but at the same time, he doesn't look afraid out there."
Blue Jays manager John Gibbons said Stroman has "done a great job. He competes. He's got a chip on his shoulder. He's had to prove everything. He's been told his whole life he can't do it because of his size. He's proving a lot of people wrong."
That Stroman has had to prove himself because he is 5-9 (and baseball traditionally shies away from relatively short righthanders) is a narrative that has followed him in his high school days and in college at Duke.
But the Jays chose him in the first round of the 2012 draft with the 22nd overall pick and have him in the rotation after only 42 minor-league games (27 starts). The stuff apparently is just that good.
"He's like a little machine gun out there," catcher Josh Thole said. "His tempo is quick. He just gets the ball, gets on the mound and it kind of like comes out of his hand like 'boom, boom, boom, boom.' He's got this Wiffle ball curveball that he's been throwing. Oh, wow, when it gets going, it's one of the better breaking balls I've ever seen. It's such great arm speed and it just comes out and it's like, 'Whoa. Left turn.' "
And pitching against Tanaka at Yankee Stadium? The Blue Jays say that won't affect the Long Island kid. Not in a bad way, anyway.
"He wants that," Gibbons said. "That's the kind of kid he is."