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Courtesy: Chris Cook/GoDuke the Magazine
Release: 07/09/2014
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DURHAM, N.C. -- Carlos Beltran. Jacoby Ellsbury. Joe Mauer. Ichiro Suzuki. That’s not the American League All-Star roster. It’s a list of the players former Duke star Marcus Stroman has already struck out in his first season in the big leagues. Actually it’s only a fraction of the list, just four of a whopping 43 the rookie right-hander punched out in his first 49 major league innings.

Since he was summoned to make his big league debut for the Toronto Blue Jays this season, Stroman has sawed off, frozen and whiffed some of the best hitters in the majors with an impressive arsenal of power fastballs and filthy breaking stuff. The Duke product has been a revelation in the starting rotation for the first-place Blue Jays, who latched on to Stroman like a life raft when he made his long-anticipated debut with the Blue Jays this season.

Actually, “long-anticipated” may be a bit of a stretch to describe Stroman’s ascent to the majors, as he put in just two seasons of minor league service time before getting the call. It’s little surprise, as Stroman was billed as the most pro-ready prospect in the 2012 MLB Draft by Baseball America. After mowing down ACC hitters for three years at Duke, he was lauded for his makeup and stuff, notably a hard fastball that could reach into the upper-90s and a slider that was already pegged as major league-ready.

Despite his 5-foot-9, 185-pound frame Toronto saw Stroman as a starter, a decision that Stroman wasted little time in validating. His numbers were consistently dominant across the Double-A and Triple-A levels, and after averaging more than 12 strikeouts per nine innings with a sparking 1.69 ERA at Triple-A Buffalo earlier this season, Stroman earned his shot in the big leagues. Toronto called him up on May 4, though the news came to him from an unlikely source.

“It’s actually pretty funny because I found out initially from my mom who saw it on Twitter,” said the Medford, N.Y., native, who was the No. 22 pick in the 2012 draft. “I guess it leaked a little earlier than when it was supposed to. My mom called me and asked if I got called up and I told her no, that I would know. A few minutes later, our minor league coordinator called and told me I was getting called up, so it was pretty crazy. My mom was in town in Buffalo when it happened so it was pretty cool.”

The only problem was the Blue Jays had no room in their starting rotation, so they relegated Stroman to the bullpen. It went against the Blue Jays’ plan to use him as a starter, but for a team fighting to stay atop the AL East standings, getting one of their best pitchers on the field in any capacity was a priority. However, being thrust into a relief role after spending the previous 18 months working as a starter yielded mix results for Stroman, who surrendered eight runs over his final two relief appearances before being sent back down to Buffalo.

“To be honest, I didn’t know what they were going to do with me when they called me up,” he said. “I kind of had the feeling that it wasn’t going to be permanent because I knew I was going to go to the pen, and I knew they had intentions of starting me. At that time the bullpen had been struggling a little bit, so they put me in the bullpen to get a little boost…not that I helped it at all. The guys at the back of the rotation had a couple good starts, so they left me in the pen, and then they got to the point where they had their starter so they sent me back down.”

Stroman didn’t have much time to sulk, not that his unwavering confidence allows him to do such a thing. After just two more starts in Triple-A, he got another call. This time, the Jays told him he would be starting against the Kansas City Royals on May 31. No promises were made of an extended role in the rotation, but one audition was all Stroman needed to show Toronto he belonged.

Against the Royals in front of a packed Toronto crowd, the right-hander who few believed had what it took to start in the big leagues due to his small stature stifled a dangerous Kansas City offense. The Royals managed just five hits and one run while striking out six times. One of those strikeout victims was first baseman Eric Hosmer, who went down swinging — nay, flailing — at Stroman’s drop-off-the-table breaking ball. As Hosmer turned around to make the long, lonely walk back to the Royals dugout, he was caught on camera mouthing one word that perfectly summed up Stroman’s first start: “Wow.”

The video, titled “Hosmer reacts to filthy Stroman slider” went viral shortly after.

“I saw (the clip) everywhere, especially on my Twitter,” said Stroman. “That was probably one of the better (sliders) I had thrown all year. It’s pretty cool seeing a guy like him react to that pitch. It kind of lets you know that you’re doing something right.”

Stroman is doing many things right. Since he joined the rotation, he is 3-2 with a 2.08 ERA, 39 strikeouts and just 11 walks in 43 innings. He has yet to allow more than three runs in any start and has gone at least six innings six of his seven outings. His ERA as a starter is lower than all the other pitchers Toronto has used in its rotation.

Stroman’s performances have not come against cupcakes, either. In addition to the hard-hitting Royals, Stroman has faced the Yankees (twice), White Sox and reigning World Series champion Cardinals. The big names staring Stroman down from the batter’s box 60 feet, six inches away from the mound have not fazed him. He stumbled just one time, being lifted after 3.2 innings in his first start against the Yankees due to a high pitch count. Just six days later, he rebounded with the best start of his career — also against the Yankees. The bounce-back performance was an eight-inning gem in which he held the Bronx Bombers to three hits and one run en route to his fourth win.

“I knew my stuff would play, I just knew there would be a tiny adjustment period,” said Stroman, who struck out the Oakland A’s slugging trio of Yoenis Cespedes, Brandon Moss and Josh Donaldson consecutively in the bottom of the sixth inning during his Fourth of July start.

“The biggest thing is just really focusing on one pitch at a time and being confident in your stuff. That’s the biggest thing for me. Just as long as I’m confident, that goes a long way when you’re facing these lineups like the Orioles with Nelson Cruz, Chris Davis, Adam Jones — like the real deal.  Once you get over the fact that these are people you watched growing up and idolized and realize it is just a game and can get the guys out…I think that is when I realized I belonged.”

Others are starting to realize the same thing.

“I mean, he’s a short guy,” said Blue Jays manager John Gibbons. “But when he walks around, he’s 10 feet tall.”

HDMH is an acronym Stroman coined that stands for Height Doesn’t Measure Heart. He had it written on his cleats when he was at Duke, and now it’s inked on the brim of his royal blue cap. It takes a special kind of makeup to reach the big leagues as a 5-9 pitcher. You only need to watch Stroman strike out a pro hitter and then walk off the mound blowing a bubble with a fresh wad of chewing gum to know that he has it.

“That’s half the battle, man, believing in yourself,” Gibbons said. “I don’t think you can rattle him.”

Beltran, Ellsbury, Ichiro and Mauer already know it, but others are quickly finding out.