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Marcus Stroman allowed only three hits over 4 2/3 innings during a spring training game against the Boston Red Sox.

Marcus Stroman allowed only three hits over 4 2/3 innings during a spring training game against the Boston Red Sox.

Jonathan Dyer/USA Today Sports

From a spartan childhood to the self-imposed demands of being an ace, gutsy Blue Jays starter Marcus Stroman always reaches his goals, Robert MacLeod reports from Dunedin

Starting from when he was about 8, Marcus Stroman was running hills. Or he might have been subjected to doing weighted-sled drags or sprints with a running parachute.

When he woke up every morning he was required to do pull-ups as soon as he crawled out of bed. And if he was fortunate to have a sleepover, his friend was required to follow the same exercise routine.

When it is suggested he did not have many sleepovers, Stroman just laughs.

"Childhood was a grind," Stroman will tell you now, without batting an eye. "It wasn't fun and games all the time. It was an intense upbringing."

To listen to Stroman talk about how he grew up, you can't help but come away with the impression that he wasn't raised as much as he was manufactured. And he is all right with that.

Although it took a while, Stroman said he now appreciates the stern upbringing he was subjected to growing up on Long Island at the hands of his parents, Earl Stroman and Adlin Auffant.

Stroman, 24, has gone on to graduate from prestigious Duke University and he is now standing on the brink of major-league stardom as a starter with the Toronto Blue Jays.

Marcus Stroman warms up before the start of a spring training game against the Boston Red Sox at Florida Auto Exchange Park.

Marcus Stroman warms up before the start of a spring training game against the Boston Red Sox at Florida Auto Exchange Park.

Jonathan Dyer/USA TODAY Sports

Next month, when the Blue Jays begin defence of their American League East crown they won with such fanfare in 2015, it will be Stroman who will be counted on to do much of the heavy lifting.

And the Blue Jays are rolling the dice that their young charge, who has yet to complete a full season of major-league employment since he burst onto the scene in 2014, is up to the task as the self-anointed ace of the pitching staff.

"We still don't know how good he's going to be," Blue Jays manager John Gibbons says about Stroman and the huge expectations that are being heaped on his broad shoulders. "He's been very good since the beginning. Only time will tell.

"But there's something different about this kid. He thrives and he wants to be the guy. He wants to be pitching that big game. They all don't do that. Some of them may tell you that but they're all wired different. He's one guy, I think he can handle it."

Although the Blue Jays shy away from placing "ace" labels on their pitchers, Stroman embraces the concept that he is the pitcher the team can count on to take the ball every fifth day and stymie opposing hitters.

"Absolutely, my work ethic is one of an ace," Stroman said earlier this week during an interview at Florida Auto Exchange Stadium, the Blue Jays' home base during baseball's annual rite of spring training. 'I want to be an ace. That's why I work as hard as I do. That's why I've done everything that I've done in the past.

"I've never wanted to be a number two, a number three, a number four [in the pitching rotation]. I've always wanted to be the guy. So I look forward to accepting that role and running with it."

And Stroman is not out to just prove his worth to his teammates. His sights are much higher than that.

"The entire organization, the city of Toronto, the country of Canada – I think they all have confidence in me to get the job done," he said. "So I feel that gives me more confidence."

Call him brash if you want, call him cocky. Stroman can live with all that and it doesn't bother him. In fact, he feeds off it. Knock him down and he bounces right back up again. He is fearless.

He knows he is good and he will not hesitate to tell you that.

Instead of coming across as a spoiled egomaniac, Stroman is able to carry this all off by deploying an infectious enthusiasm along with an immense work ethic that has earned him widespread respect throughout the Blue Jays clubhouse.

Veteran Toronto pitcher R.A. Dickey says he is reminded of NBA icons LeBron James and Kobe Bryant the way Stroman has been able to captivate his team at such a young age.

"Marcus has a very young spirit, very vibrant, full of panache and moxy," Dickey said. "I think he's in the conversation that you would have when you talk about those kinds of prodigal people in their industries that are young and just get it. They get the preparation, they get the pressure, and they get the execution.

"And Marcus is one of those guys who has been physically blessed and also works incredibly hard."

To hear Stroman tell it, he had little choice but to hunker down from an early age and work hard to offset the stereotypes others placed on him for always being the smallest player on the sandlot.

This is just the way it has been for someone who only stands 5-foot-8 and playing a position where he is the small fry in the land of the giants. Most MLB starters stand six feet and taller.

"I've been doubted for a long time, and I still am," he says.

According to data collected by Baseball-Reference.com, the last player Stroman's height or smaller to make a major-league start was in 2007 when Fabio Castro of the Philadelphia Phillies got into one game. Castro stood all of 5-foot-7.

And it has been 63 years since the last time a pitcher of Stroman's stature last won 20 games in a season when Bobby Shantz, also 5-foot-7, went 24-7 with the Philadelphia Athletics in 1952.

Stroman has made 24 regular-season starts for the Blue Jays the past two seasons, going 15-6 – but only four of those games occurred in 2015 after he tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee during spring training.

Everybody felt Stroman's season was done – everybody but Stroman, who returned to Duke to complete his degree, majoring in sociology with a minor in markets and management studies.

Marcus Stroman pitches during the rubber match of the Jays' three game home stand against the New York Yankees at the Rogers Centre on Sept. 23, 2015.

Marcus Stroman pitches during the rubber match of the Jays’ three game home stand against the New York Yankees at the Rogers Centre on Sept. 23, 2015.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

And he hit the gym with a gruelling intensity and surprised everybody else but himself when he was able to return to the Toronto lineup in time to factor into Toronto's stretch drive in the playoffs.

To Stroman's way of thinking, size doesn't matter – never has.

And he has made it his lifelong mission to prove to all the doubters he has encountered along the way, those who constantly told him he was too small to amount to a decent major-league pitcher, that they were wrong.

He has a tattoo that reads "Height Doesn't Measure Heart" etched on his chest, a slogan that Stroman has had copyrighted. He plans to launch an HDMH fashion line in the next couple of months.

And it is not just in the baseball world where Stroman said his message of perseverance is being heard.

"I can't tell you how many stories I've heard, whether it being people battling back from cancer just saying how my story has inspired them to get stronger," Stroman said. "Or undersized athletes who have said, just by reading my story, it has given them an extra push just to compete at the next level.

"That stuff inspires me. People don't see that. I get blown up daily, daily – 15, 20, 25 messages a day between Twitter, Instagram."

Just that morning, Stroman said he received a Twitter message that included a picture of a fan's forearm with Stroman's HDMH logo prominently displayed in a tattoo.

"That's probably the 30th tattoo of my HDMH brand that I've seen people get, which is just awesome," Stroman said. "That just says that basically my message is getting through."

In his first start after the injury layoff, on baseball's grandest stage in Yankee Stadium, Stroman went five solid innings, allowing three runs off just four hits to earn the win in a 10-7 Blue Jays victory.

Stroman would go on to win his remaining three regular-season starts and was a perfect 4-0 heading into the postseason.

Marcus Stroman hugs teammate Mark Buehrle as they celebrate the team's win over the Texas Rangers to take the American League Division Series Oct 14, 2015 in Toronto.

Marcus Stroman hugs teammate Mark Buehrle as they celebrate the team’s win over the Texas Rangers to take the American League Division Series Oct 14, 2015 in Toronto.

John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

In the mind of Dickey, Stroman's performance that September after he first returned to the lineup should dispel any concerns that Stroman is too inexperienced to be a top-of-the-rotation starting pitcher.

"I think that you can look at his September and see that it's probably not going to bother him," Dickey said. "You can't come up, off a major knee surgery, in the midst of what we were in the midst of, perform the way he did and then assume that he's going to fail because there's too much pressure.

"I think that should tell you all there is to tell you about that."

In the postseason, Stroman pitched well – going 1-0 in three starts through two rounds where Toronto's compelling season finally came to a halt with a loss to the Kansas City Royals in the AL Championship Series.

And Stroman can't wait to get it going this year – a year in which he plans to be a factor the entire way.

"I can't wait, first opening day, I'm just trying to make it there healthy," he said. "I'm doing everything I can to put my body in a position and just to make sure I'm ready to go out there, go nine innings every five [days].

"I'm doing everything in my power just to make sure that I'm ready to rock."