The Major League Baseball maturation process of Toronto Blue Jays rookie Marcus Stroman will speed up a little Tuesday night, on a stage that could hardly be any bigger: in New York City, at Yankee Stadium, against Japanese sensation Masahiro Tanaka.
And when you factor in that Stroman, 23, hails from nearby Medford – on Long Island, about an hour’s drive east of Manhattan – the needle on the pressure meter will be well into the red.
Since he’s a rookie, the engaging right-hander has experienced a year of firsts: his first MLB call-up by the Jays; first game action; first win in a relief role; first win as a starting pitcher.
Tuesday night will mark another milestone for Stroman, who will make his first start at Yankee Stadium against Tanaka, who has the best record of any pitcher in the American League this season.
And you can’t forget that the Blue Jays head into the three-game series holding a 4 1/2-game lead over the Yankees and the Baltimore Orioles in the AL East standing, so the magnitude of the moment only gets weightier.
Stroman insists he is cool with the scenario and will be okay in the pitching spotlight, with more than 40,000 bellowing New York baseball fans who do their best to take his mind off the game.
“I’m usually pretty good with dealing with things like that,” Stroman said Sunday in Baltimore, where the Jays earned a 2-2 series split against the Orioles before heading north to New York. “I don’t let anything get to me or get me overly excited or kind of get me out of my game. I’m fine, I’m in a good place mentally. I feel good going into it. I have an off-day to kind of hang out in New York and see some friends in the city, and we’ve got a game on Tuesday.”
Stroman may not have had time to fret about what’s coming. He has been busy the past few days trying to round up about 70 tickets to the game for family and friends.
“I know he’s excited,” said Toronto manager John Gibbons. “He’s from New York, so he’s pitching Tuesday night in New York. No telling what he might do.”
That, obviously, could be good or bad.
Stroman is Toronto’s top pitching prospect after getting drafted by the Blue Jays in the first round, 22nd overall, out of Duke University in 2012.
He began the season in a starting role at the Triple-A level in Buffalo, and was first called up by the Blue Jays in early May to work out of the bullpen.
He made his first Major League appearance May 4 in Pittsburgh and earned his first big-league win two days later in Philadelphia when he pitched 1 1/3-innings in the ninth and 10th innings in a 6-5 victory over the Phillies.
In his final two relief appearances, Stroman did not fare as well, allowing a total of nine runs off 11 hits in just three innings of work. So after compiling some unflattering numbers in relief – 12.29 earned run average over 6 1/3 innings pitched – he was dispatched to Buffalo in mid-May to get more games in as a starter.
“I don’t think you can read anything into those bullpen numbers,” Toronto general manager Alex Anthopoulos said during an interview on Monday. “The sample size is so tiny.”
In mid-May, after Dustin McGowan was moved into the bullpen, Stroman was recalled and put into Toronto’s starting rotation. He earned his first win as a starter against the Kansas City Royals on May 31. Stroman has now made three starts and is 2-1 with a 2.50 ERA.
Anthopoulos said if Stroman is going to have a successful professional career, he will have to get used to making starts in hostile environments such as the one coming up on Tuesday. “It’s all part of playing in the AL East,” Anthopoulos said. “If he’s going to be here for a while, you’re going to be in Fenway, you’re going to be in New York, in Baltimore.
“It’s not like it’s his big-league debut, so I don’t make anything of it. Marcus will hopefully give us a chance to win the game. Going up against Tanaka is a real challenge for us.”
Tanaka is 10-1 on the year, with a 2.02 ERA, tops in the AL, and he has 103 strikeouts in 93.2 innings pitched, fifth highest in the league.
Gibbons said that Stroman yearns to be handed the ball in the toughest situations. “He wants that,” the manager said. “That’s the kind of kid he is. I don’t think it will phase him one little bit. Hopefully he’s good, because you know Tanaka will be.”