MILWAUKEE — There are moments when it becomes obvious that Marcus Stroman has found that all-important rhythm. One such tell arrived in the sixth inning on Sunday afternoon at American Family Field.
Stroman spun a slider to Brewers leadoff man Kolten Wong, who swung through the pitch for the frame’s final out. On the mound, the Cubs’ pitcher froze in a pose facing the outfield, then leaned back and let gravity pull him into a spin move toward the dugout.
“We’re starting to see what Stroman is,” Cubs catcher Yan Gomes said after a 2-0 win over the rival Brewers. “That guy that’s full of confidence on the mound. That outing kind of showed it.”
Pitching opposite Corbin Burnes, the National League’s reigning Cy Young Award winner, Stroman kept pace with his own style. Burnes racked up strikeouts. Stroman piled up groundouts. Burnes was perfect through 13 batters. Stroman was perfect against his final 14.
For seven innings, Stroman looked the part of the rotation difference-maker the Cubs felt they signed with a three-year, $71 million free-agent contract. He limited the Brewers to two hits, struck out five and generated 11 outs via grounders (including two double plays).
“That’s the version of him that he expects,” Cubs manager David Ross said.
It also happened to be Stroman’s 31st birthday.
Stroman will have to excuse his teammates if they start wishing him happy birthday before each start.
“That could be a thing,” Gomes said with a grin. “Maybe we’ll have to put that on a shirt.”
Stroman said he treated it the same as any other start — complete with the anxiety and nausea that hits him on the eve of an outing. The righty also knew he was heading to the hill with a 6.98 ERA through four starts, in which a search for mechanical rhythm had been a theme.
Ross felt Stroman began to look like himself in his previous start in Atlanta, when he logged a quality start. That feeling carried over to Sunday in Milwaukee, when Stroman and Gomes leaned on the slider (37) more than the sinker (34) for the first time this year.
“It was good. I don’t think it was great,” Stroman said of his slider. “I still think there’s a lot of room for it to be better. I think Yan was awesome today. I think the defense was incredible. I think I had a really good mix of pitches, so they weren’t able to sit on anything in any count.”
Ross praised the way Stroman and Gomes were able to react to how the Brewers’ lineup was approaching the pitcher’s arsenal. When they recognized certain hitters were taking the slider for strikes, the duo switched up the sequencing and found avenues to make the pitch more effective.
“It was a fun game to call,” Gomes said. “You could just like flick a number and it was a competitive pitch at all times.”
Stroman threw 12 or fewer pitches in four of his seven innings. He generated at least one groundout in six frames. He found spots to mix in the splitter, cutter and four-seamer, finishing with nine swinging strikes overall.
Stroman allowed a one-out single (Willy Adames) and issued a one-out walk (Hunter Renfroe) in the first and second, respectively. At both turns, the Cubs’ starter escaped with a double play. Following Tyrone Taylor’s one-out double in the third, the Brewers did not reach base again off Stroman.
“Most of his hard contact, it’s ground balls,” Brewers outfielder Andrew McCutchen said. “We weren’t able to scratch any big innings off him. We only had a runner in scoring position once.”
The delivery issues Stroman faced through his first four starts could be partially the product of the abbreviated Spring Training. Ross also noted that there can also be a heightened sense of pressure when a new player comes into the fold on a big contract.
Ross said he witnessed that element after Jon Lester joined the Cubs on his $155 million deal early in the 2015 season. As it happened, it was a May 1 outing against the Brewers that helped Lester get back on track after a tough first month in Chicago.
“You put a lot of pressure on yourself early on,” Ross said. “You try a little bit harder. You want things to work out. Jon did that, I think, in his first year here. So, you want these guys to just settle in. It’ll happen.”
Stroman certainly looked more settled in and comfortable against the Brewers.
“I feel like I’m getting there. Just making positive strides,” Stroman said. “Definitely getting more comfortable with each and every rep, and getting to a place where I think I can kind of succeed from here on out.”
Will that include pretending it’s his birthday every five days?
“No,” Stroman said with a laugh. “I’ve just got to pitch better. I want that to be the standard.”