Marcus Stroman just might turn out to be the hero for the little guy.
In a world where starting pitchers are supposed to be 6-foot-3 or taller, all the better to fire BBs from the top of the mound, Stroman is generously listed as 5-foot-9 in the Toronto Blue Jays media guide. Despite going against the grain of every baseball scouting manual ever written, Stroman can still smoke a 95-miles-per-hour fastball when he uncoils his small frame.
He also confounded the conventional wisdom on little men as the game went on Friday night, growing stronger against the St. Louis Cardinals. After the third inning, Stroman held the Cards to one hit until he departed with a one-run lead in the seventh, which the bullpen held up for a 3-1 win to give the rookie (3-0) his second win in as many starts in Major League Baseball. Casey Janssen came on in the ninth for a 1-2-3 inning (with some help from video review) for his 11 save in 12 opportunities.
"My entire life," Stroman said when asked how many times he was told he's too short to be a big-league pitcher while he was growing up in Medford, N.Y. "I don't know how many times you can add that up. But endlessly. I still get it.
"It's not something that fazes me, it's just something that makes me work that much harder to prove people wrong. More importantly, to prove myself right because I know I can pitch at this level."
The win came in front of a crowd of 33,528 Friday night at the Rogers Centre, a somewhat small crowd considering the Blue Jays have rolled to the top of the AL East and just came home from a sweep of the Detroit Tigers. It was their sixth consecutive win, raising their record to 38-24, which featured more than just Stroman's strong outing. There were a couple of defensive gems by the Jays, a triple play by the Cards and a video review that gave Toronto a key out in the ninth inning on fan interference.
Stroman may be just 23 years old and in his first major-league season, and look a good 10 years younger, but the Jays' first-round pick in the 2012 MLB first-year player draft showed a lot more age with his poise.
"The kid believes in himself. He just attacks you," said Blue Jays manager John Gibbons, who earlier noted it was the 25 anniversary of the opening of the Rogers Centre and that Stroman "wasn't even born then."
Once Stroman, who gave up a run in the first inning on a walk and a couple of hits, settled down by the third inning, he could not have been blamed if he muttered to himself about his teammates, whose big bats went silent at the wrong times against the National Leaguers.
Three times through the first six innings the Blue Jays loaded the bases and three times they left Stroman with no runs. The worst came in the bottom of the sixth with the bases loaded and nobody out. Jays right fielder Jose Bautista, who popped up to the catcher in the first with the bases loaded, drilled a shot that Cards second baseman Daniel Descalso turned into a triple play.
However, Stroman can also thank two of those sluggers, Bautista and Brett Lawrie, for two defensive gems in the first inning that turned the game around for him. A walk, a double by Cards left fielder Matt Holliday and a single by first baseman Allen Craig left Stroman and the Jays down 1-0 with runners at first and second with one out. But Bautista fired a rocket from right field to Jays catcher Dioner Navarro to nail Holliday at the plate. Then Lawrie ended the inning with a marvelous stab well behind second base and threw out St. Louis outfielder Jon Jay.
"Yeah, that's huge," Stroman said of the two plays. "It puts you back in your groove, lets you know the guys are behind you and kind of forces you to buckle down and pitch well."
The triple play, the first one pulled on the Jays since 2008, wasn't Bautista's fault. He drilled a shot between first and second but right at Descalso. The Cards second baseman then tossed the ball to shortstop Jhonny Peralta at second base to double off the Jays' Jose Reyes for out No. 2. Peralta doubled off Melky Cabrera at first to complete the triple play.
If this had unnerved Stroman everyone in the ballpark would have understood. He did last just one more batter, but it was a meek single to left. That marked 93 pitches thrown, so Gibbons did not take any chances, bringing on Brett Cecil, who helped preserve Stroman's lead.
Stroman went off to a standing ovation, having restricted the seven hits he surrendered mostly to the first three innings to allow one run. He struck out seven of the last 14 batters he faced. He said he did all he could to look nonchalant for his first standing O in the bigs.
"I tried to do my best tough-guy impersonation and tried not to smile," Stroman said. "But it's definitely pretty special walking off."
The Blue Jays' big bats did make enough of an appearance to get Stroman his lead. Bautistia may have spoiled a couple of bases-loaded situations but in the middle of it he hit a solo home run in the third, his 15 of the season. Lawrie, 24, hit a solo shot to right centre in the fifth off starter and loser Lance Lynn (6-4) to put the Jays ahead 2-1. The Jays added a run in the eighth to close out the scoring.
Lawrie's homer was his 11 of the season, which matches the 11 he hit in 2012 and 2013, his first two major-league seasons.
Every time it looked like Stroman was in trouble he used his arsenal of speed and breaking balls to get out of it.
In the top of the fifth, the Cardinals got a runner in scoring position thanks to a single and stolen base by left fielder Matt Holliday. But Stroman froze first baseman Allen Craig with a nasty curve to strike him out and end the inning. Incidentally, Stroman hit Holliday on the arm with a fastball in the third. The smack could be heard all the way to the press box.
That speed was seen again to end the sixth when the Cards again got a runner to second when Stroman threw a wild pitch. But he turned around and blew a fastball by Decalso to end the inning with his second consecutive strikeout.
"He's always shown the poise, today he got the results to go along with it," Bautista said of Stroman. "He's never looked overmatched, overchallenged, too stressed out or scared."
Bautista also played the central role in the final oddity of the game, the video review that got the Jays the second out of the ninth inning. He went over to the right-field stands to catch a foul fly ball but a youngster in the seats with a glove stood up to try his own catch and blocked Bautista's view of the ball, which bounced away. The Blue Jays appealed the play and after a video review were awarded the second out.
Bautista reflected on his evening and said, "That has got to be the most eventful game of my career."