TORONTO — Blue Jays pitcher Marcus Stroman isn’t much of a fan of the outdoors, doesn’t like bugs and hates spiders.
But put him on a pitching mound in front of millions and he’s in his element. Locked and loaded with something to prove.
“As far as sports-wise, I feel like I’m able to keep my emotions in check and use the limelight as kind of a way to get up. I love it, I love it,” the 24-year-old right-hander said Thursday on the eve of Game 1 of Toronto’s American League Division Series against Texas.
“This is what you dream of. This is when you’re a little kid and you’re playing in the backyard and you say ‘I’m playing in the playoffs.’ This is why you play the game. So I couldn’t be more excited. I’m not nervous. I’m not slightly nervous.
“I mean I haven’t pitched in nine days so I’m excited to get out there and get on the mound and get going.”
Stroman (4-0) will face Rangers ace Cole Hamels (13-8) in Game 2 Friday, the latest chapter in his remarkable comeback from March surgery to repair an anterior cruciate knee ligament ripped up during a routine fielding drill in spring training.
“This is definitely the biggest start of my career, hands down,” he said. “But I’m ready for it.”
Stroman is a five-foot-eight, 180-pound bundle of energy topped by a mop of multi-coloured hair stuffed into an endless supply of baseball caps.
He has a pitching repertoire of five pitches — he credits the sinker as a key addition — that is fuelled by the chip on his shoulder and the heart he wears on his sleeve.
“I pitch with a lot of hate and anger and emotion in my heart,” he acknowledged.
Asked about the hate, he replied: “A lot goes into it. I’m five foot eight. A lot of people doubt me. So that’s with me every single pitch out there on the mound.”
He says his father, knowing his son “wasn’t going to be the biggest guy in the room,” told him to play with that chip on his shoulder and not to worry about what anyone else said.
According to manager John Gibbons, Stroman’s accelerated comeback was “totally unexpected.”
“He told me in spring training after the injury ‘I’ll see you in September,’ and I thought it was a pipe dream,'” said Gibbons. “But we encouraged him, he went off and did his education (completing his degree at Duke), did his rehab and he just kept moving and moving. And next thing you know he’s here.”
Stroman says the comeback was arduous.
“I exhausted every opportunity and did everything in my power to get back to this team. I did. And it was not fun. A lot of it was not fun. I made the best situation out of it. I couldn’t explain it. I’ll never have to go through anything as hard as that in my life.”
Stroman, who went 11-6 with a 3.65 ERA as a rookie in 2014, has yet to lose since returning to action in early September and is a vibrant part of the Jays’ clubhouse.
“He really picked up where he was last year,” said Gibbons. “He’s been a force.”
Even Hamels is impressed by Stroman’s perseverance, saying he deserves “some serious credit for what he’s done this year.”
“I was in Clearwater just down the street from when he injured his knee and from what he’s been able to do, it’s absolutely tremendous. I think it shows his true character just for the fact of being able to go to school and playing the game of baseball,” he said.
“That’s something that I don’t think I could have done, so he’s definitely got something pretty special with him.”
Away from the park, Stroman says he’s a “city guy” who relies on roommate Aaron Sanchez to take care of bugs he comes across at their place in Florida.
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Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press