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"Height doesn't measure heart"—Stroman's trademarked catchphrase (Elli Slavitch / McGill Tribune)

Behind The Bench: A September to remember for Marcus Stroman

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The last time the Toronto Blue Jays were atop the AL East this late in the regular season, the European Union did not exist, Billboard’s No. 1 song was Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You,” and Liam Neeson was nominated for an Academy Award. Since the transcendent 1993 World Series team, injury, sub-par play, and disappointment have afflicted the Jays franchise and numbed Toronto fans to the point of near apathy.

At first, the 2015 season seemed no different. Just two weeks after the Blue Jays’ first team spring training workout, the team’s 5’8”  ace Marcus Stroman tore his ACL and was believed to be out for the season. Stroman’s rookie season was one of the few bright spots in a mediocre 2014 Jays’ pitching staff; he posted a 3.65 ERA, 1.17 WHIP, and 111 strikeouts in 130.2 innings pitched. The team believed he could be their number one starter in 2015.

With Stroman’s season-ending injury, it was tough to find hope in a rotation that featured two unproven rookies (Daniel Norris, Aaron Sanchez), two veterans nearing the end of their careers (Robert Dickey, Mark Buehrle), and the frustrating Drew Hutchison. Stroman, however, refused to give up on the season, and aimed to make a late-season return.

“Right when I tore my ACL, I kind of mapped [my comeback] out in my head,” Stroman told Robert MacLeod of the Globe and Mail

He returned to Duke University to finish his Sociology degree and endured a gruelling rehab regimen. From his more than frequent Instagram and Twitter updates, It was clear he was putting in work, but the idea of a miraculous Stroman resurrection in September seemed unnecessary. The Blue Jays would be sitting at their usual .500 record down the stretch—why rush Stroman back for a handful of meaningless starts? 

An ACL tear usually requires anywhere from six to 12 months of rehab to fully heal. Stroman was running, and throwing 80 feet across the diamond in four months. Five months after his surgery, Stroman completed his rehab at Duke.

Something strange started to happen after the All-Star break, however. Alex Anthopoulos, the patron saint of Jays fans, pulled off a set of miraculous deadline-day deals that brought in David Price, Troy Tulowitzki, Ben Revere and some key depth pieces to the bullpen. With a revamped squad, the Blue Jays were transformed into a big, blue winning machine.

In the month of August, the team went 21-6 to overcome a 7.5 game deficit and take the division lead from the Yankees. The lineup instilled fear in the hearts of the grown men trying (and failing) to pitch to them as they averaged 6.3 runs a game and outscored their opponents by 87 runs. The rotation, led by Price, has posted the lowest WHIP (1.06) and third lowest ERA (2.83) in the entire MLB. Jays fans everywhere rejoiced as their team broke further and further into uncharted territory. When Stroman’s first rehab start was announced, Jays  fans couldn’t push thoughts of ’92 and ’93 out of their minds. 

An ACL tear usually requires anywhere from six to 12 months of rehab to fully heal. Stroman was running, and throwing 80 feet across the diamond in four months. Five months after his surgery, Stroman completed his rehab at Duke. On Sept. 2, he threw 4.2 innings of shutout ball in his first rehab start with the Jays’ Single-A affiliate. After a quick tune-up in Triple-A, the unthinkable was announced: Stroman would make his season debut against the Yankees on Sept. 12. 

Any visiting pitcher will tell you that Yankee Stadium, with its short left-field porch, is the last place you would want to make your first start after returning from a serious injury. Stroman wasn’t bothered. He went five innings, giving up three runs on four hits to record an emotional win. He was electrifying in his next start against the Red Sox. Pitching in front of a sold-out crowd at the Rogers Centre, Stroman fired seven innings of one run ball, giving up six hits and striking out three in his homecoming. 

As the Jays chase the Royals for the best record in the AL and home-field advantage in the playoffs, Stroman’s unlikely return gives the team a whole lot of pitching options that they did not have a few months ago. It allows the Jays to put a struggling Hutchison in the bullpen with the option of pulling him back into the rotation if the aging Mark Buehrle needs to be rested. If Stroman can return to his top form for the post-season, the Jays will have an infusion of talent and a top-of-the-rotation starter that will gear them up for a deep playoff run. As the team reunites with their star pitcher, you get the sense that nothing can go wrong for the Jays.

Stroman has the Jays singing: “This is going to be our year.” 

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