TORONTO – Marcus Stroman is a kid in baseball terms, learning on the job every day. And he begins each day in the big leagues like most other kids going to school.
He straps on his backpack and gets moving.
In the majors, rookies are often saddled with wearing a backpack on the pregame walk from the dugout to the bullpen. It’s filled with the veterans’ quota of bubble gum and sunflower seeds for the game, and it’s usually got some children’s character plastered on the side that draws guffaws from early arrivals in the crowd.
Think Dora the Explorer, whose little “Backpack, Backpack” ditty got play on the Rogers Centre jumbotron in recent seasons. Stroman’s pack, meanwhile, has a character with a good deal of symbolism for his career – Lightning McQueen.
The speedster from the animated movie series “Cars” gets in his groove quickly. Just like Stroman has. Less than two years after he was the Blue Jays’ No. 1 draft pick – and after only five starts in Triple-A this year for the Bisons – Stroman is adjusting to life in the Blue Jays’ bullpen.
“I knew what I was getting myself into there,” a laughing Stroman said of the backpack over the weekend in Rogers Centre. “It all goes along with being the youngest guy, with being the rookie and being around a bunch of good guys who like to have a good time. It’s all good. The backpack is fine.”
Life in the majors has been too. Stroman got the call just 10 days ago after spending the evening at Niagara Falls with his mother and girlfriend, who were in town to celebrate his 23rd birthday. The message was clear: The limo will pick you up at 5 a.m. to drive you to Pittsburgh to join the Blue Jays.
“It really is crazy. The beginning of May has been pretty awesome,” Stroman said. “My birthday, the call-up. My family here. It’s been pretty surreal, so I’m enjoying every second of it.”
Stroman has already experienced plenty of firsts. The Call-up. The Appearance (two-thirds of an inning May 4 at Pittsburgh). The Win (May 6 at Philadelphia, where he ended the ninth by leaving the tying run on third base and the Blue Jays won in the 10th). And, as can happen to rookies, The Shelling (four runs on six hits in 1∏ innings Sunday against the Los Angeles Angels).
“I feel like I belong, like I’m settled in and comfortable,” he said. “Once you get past the first one, where you’re all amped up and have the nerves going, you realize it’s just baseball starting with the second one. You make your pitches, get people out just the same way you’ve played it for all those years.”
Stroman entered Tuesday with a 9.00 ERA, certainly bloated by the Sunday outing. But he’s struck out four and walked none in his five innings to date, encouraging signs for the Jays.
“He’s like a new toy down there,” said manager John Gibbons. “It’s a young arm, but you can’t get carried away either.”
Specifically, Gibbons doesn’t want to overuse Stroman while the rookie is getting re-acclimated to relief pitching. Stroman pitched out of the pen some in college at Duke as well as in the USA Baseball program and in the Arizona Fall League.
“I know how to go about my everyday business,” Stroman said. “I know how to have my arm ready for multiple days and even back-to-back days. I feel 100 percent comfortable in the bullpen. It’s not something that takes a long time to get used to because I’ve done it in the past and that really helps me.”
You see plenty of rookies doing big things in their career initially out of the bullpen, with recent examples like Adam Wainwright of the ’06 Cardinals and David Price of the ’08 Rays getting all the way to the World Series.
Cubs ace Jeff Samardzija started in the pen and so did Michael Wacha, the Cards’ postseason hero last October.
But Stroman was so good in Buffalo, with a 1.69 ERA and 36 strikeouts against just seven walks, that there’s plenty of support from fans about moving him into the rotation right now. In Stroman’s last start in Buffalo, April 29 against Louisville, he pitched six no-hit innings but was pulled because the Jays had him on a pitch limit.
“You feel like you’re on a roll. You’re out there and innings go quick-quick-quick and you’re back in the dugout,” he recalled. “It was probably the best stuff I’ve had in a while. Erik Kratz was catching and he and I were on a pretty good page and we took it from there.”
At least for now, however, the Jays don’t seem that interested in pushing out either J.A. Happ or Dustin McGowan for Stroman. But it remains a hot topic in Toronto.
“Whatever they need to do, whatever it takes,” Stroman said. “Long relief, starting, short work. I’m happy to be here. Their message was just ‘help us win.’ They said they’re not gonna abuse me, but they’re going to use me. Whatever they want is great by me.”