Marcus Stroman had to say otherwise, but he knew Sunday was an audition. Pitching in the Yankees’ backyard against the very team craving his services, all that was missing was Brian Cashman himself sitting behind the backstop, aiming a radar gun and scribbling notes on a legal pad.
And Stroman performed that way in the Blue Jays’ 4-2 loss to the Yankees. According to his catcher, Danny Jansen, his arm was “electric” and he possessed his “prime-time curveball.” Blue Jays manager Charlie Montoyo noted that Stroman peaked at 95 mph — a few ticks faster than he had all season.
The former Patchogue-Medford star matched a season high with seven strikeouts, using a slider between 86-88 mph that got bad swings and worse takes. He also generated his usual flurry of ground balls in allowing three runs in six innings — a line just good enough to lose, as he did despite a quality start for the fifth time this season, the most in the majors.
But what impressed us the most about Stroman during another New York homecoming? His unabashed, full-on embrace of the moment. While others might shrug off the trade speculation or downplay the significance, the 5-7 Stroman never stands taller than when he’s presented with a challenge.
“I feel great,” he said. “I don’t have to prove myself. I have 800 innings in the AL East. I know I can compete with anybody out there and I would give myself the ball in any big-time situation.”
Call it confident, or cocky. Maybe Stroman’s bravado isn’t for everyone. Dennis Eckersley, the Hall of Famer turned Red Sox broadcaster, took issue with his swagger last month on the air. But if I’m a team in a playoff chase, eyeing a return to the World Series for the first time in a decade, I’d want that. I’ll take the ego as long as the electric stuff is there to back it up, and Stroman can do that. And if he gets under an opponent’s skin in the process, even better.
The Yankees didn’t throw their A-plus lineup against Stroman. It was more B-grade — on their scale anyway — as Gary Sanchez, Edwin Encarnacion and Aaron Hicks got the day off. But he still had enough serious bats to contend with, and Stroman mostly kept them in check. The two innings that led to runs both opened with infield hits, and with a little sharper defense, he would have escaped the fifth without ultimately getting nicked for the tiebreaking run on Jansen’s botched tag at the plate.
Stroman entered Sunday with the highest ground-ball percentage (57.8 percent) in the American League. That’s basically what he delivered, even though he rarely used his trademark sinker, throwing only 18 in 97 pitches, according to Brooks Baseball. Instead, Stroman went heavy slider (33 pitches) and cutter (27).
The Yankees’ critical knock was Gio Urshela’s two-run single in the second inning, and that was a hard-struck bouncer that skipped through the left side of the infield. Obviously, Stroman’s ability to keep the ball on the ground would be a huge plus for pitching at homer-friendly Yankee Stadium, and he’s well aware of that as a selling point.
“I think I’m a good fit in this era,” he said. “As far as launch angle and guys putting the ball in the air, I think my sinker plays incredibly well to keeping the ball on the ground, to limiting homers. And I’m not just a sinkerballer. I have plenty of weapons.”
The slight concern coming into Sunday was the mysterious left pectoral issue — the Jays called it a “cramp” — that scratched Stroman from his final start of the first half and prevented him from pitching in last week’s All-Star Game. But Stroman didn’t show any rust from the two-week layoff, and afterward, he repeatedly stressed just how good he was feeling.
For as much as Stroman claimed to be focusing on his current role with the Blue Jays, he definitely sounded like someone auditioning for the Yankees. As if his performance didn’t already make that crystal clear.
“I truly believe that I always get stronger as the year goes on,” he said. “I’ve always been a second-half pitcher. I think I’m going to have a pretty special second half.”
Historically, Stroman has been slightly better after the break, with an ERA almost a run lower and marginal improvements in WHIP and strikeout-to-walk ratio. More importantly, he seems to be at the top of his game right now, with the attitude to match.
Stroman knows what he can bring to the Yankees. Whether Cashman agrees with him is the question.