Things did not turn out too badly for Marcus Stroman considering his night and even his season could have ended on the second pitch of the game Monday night.
The Toronto Blue Jays rookie almost lost his head but managed to survive, thanks in no small part to his early training as a shortstop. That turned what could have been just another of those September playing-out-the-string games into a memorable night for both Stroman and the small but enthusiastic crowd of 16,879 at the Rogers Centre.
A little luck and a lot of skill with the glove kept Stroman laughing as well as in the game against the Chicago Cubs, which ended in a three-hit, 8-0 win for the first complete game and first shutout of his Major League Baseball career. It was his third consecutive win and raised his record to 10-5.
The game's first batter, Cubs left fielder Chris Coghlan, drilled Stroman's second pitch right back at him. It nearly hit the back of Stroman's head but he managed to deflect it with his glove to Jays shortstop Jose Reyes, who completed the put-out with a throw to first baseman Adam Lind.
"That was the first time I ever had a ball hit back like that at me," Stroman said, although he handled lots of hot shots as a shortstop for Duke University before taking up life as a pitcher. "I just praise the Lord I got out of the way. It was just pure reaction. I guess I got a glove on it.
"It ended up being a CG [complete game]. I could have ended up being out the second pitch of the game. It was awesome. It was fun."
The fun part came when Jays catcher Dioner Navarro ran to the mound and made a show of brushing Stroman off. That allowed him a laugh to settle his nerves.
"That ball goes up the middle and hits my face, things are drastically different probably," Stroman said. "Having Dioner come out there and brush me off and give me a quick little laugh was pretty good."
The Cubs, though, probably did not see much humour in the rest of the evening. After allowing a single to Jorge Soler in the second inning, Stroman overpowered the National League visitors. He retired 19 batters in a row before allowing his second hit of the game in the eighth inning, a bloop single to right by first baseman Mike Olt.
"It doesn't get any better than that," Jays manager John Gibbons said. "He just attacks. He made a couple nice plays on the mound. It was a dominating performance."
It was the quality start the Blue Jays are looking for in the waning days of the season as they try to sell hope to their fans. Most of the hope is coming from the team's young pitchers, as Stroman, 23, leads a promising group that includes fellow starter Drew Hutchison, 24, and starters-to-be Aaron Sanchez, 22, Daniel Norris, 21, and Kendall Graveman, 23, who are getting their major-league feet wet in the bullpen.
Stroman endured a four-game slump in August but came on strong with three consecutive wins in his last three starts. The difference, he said, actually started on July 19 when he started throwing his sinker for the first time in a 4-1 win over the Texas Rangers back in the heady days when the Jays were challenging for the American League East Division lead. This, too, came about with a little luck.
"I always wanted a sinker," Stroman said. "I just could never find a grip that was comfortable for me.
"I was just laying in bed one day, fooling around with the ball and kind of gripped it two-seam, kind of awkwardly. It was super-comfortable in my hand. The next day I came to the ball park and started throwing it and ever since then I've been throwing it."
He is now throwing it well enough to record 14 ground-ball outs against the Cubs, which he sees as an important step in learning how to be a major-league pitcher.
"I used to be a high-pitch guy, with five innings, six innings, a ton of pitches and high punchouts [strikeouts]," Stroman said. "Now I feel I'm really learning how to pitch.
"Using that pitch I'm able to go deeper [into games], keep the ball on the ground, get double plays when I need them."
Such as the second inning right after he surrendered that first hit to Soler. Stroman got the next batter to hit a ground ball to Jays second baseman Ryan Goins, who tagged Soler and then fired the ball to first baseman Adam Lind for the double play.
Stroman also had lots of help from the Blue Jay bats. Right fielder Jose Bautista stayed hot with a three-run home run in the fifth inning that put Toronto ahead 5-0.
The homer was also No. 200 for Bautista as a Blue Jay, which made him the fifth player to reach that mark with the team. Carlos Delgado leads that parade with 336, followed by Vernon Wells with 223, Joe Carter (203), George Bell (202) and Bautista. Bautista extended his hitting streak to 12 games, with eight home runs in that period.