CHICAGO – When the Cubs signed Marcus Stroman to a three-year, $71 million deal this offseason, the team envisioned the right-hander as a much-needed ace to pair with Kyle Hendricks in the starting rotation.
While that wasn’t the case in his first three starts, Stroman’s recent outings have been a step in that direction for Chicago, especially on Sunday. His showing, however, wasn’t enough to push the Cubs past the White Sox in a 5-4, 12-innings loss at Guaranteed Rate Field.
“It’s a tough one to swallow because Stroman threw a hell of a game,” David Robertson said after his blown save opportunity in the ninth.
Stroman threw another gem on Sunday, which adds to a streak of excellent starts for the Cubs’ right-hander.
Since he had his worst outing of the season on April 20 against the Rays — giving up seven earned runs on eight hits in 4 1/3 innings — Stroman has shown his ceiling for the Cubs. He’s had four straight stellar starts and has allowed less than three runs in each one.
Stroman followed that trend with seven shutout innings on Sunday, allowing just three hits, two walks and two strikeouts. He now has a 1.80 ERA over 30 innings in his last five starts.
But despite the recent progress on the mound, the right-hander — who was on the COVID-IL for 19 days earlier this month — isn’t 100 percent back and is still adjusting from his extended absence.
“I’m still not there body-wise and mechanics-wise,” Stroman said. “Taking 19 days off is a lot. It’s been tough to get my body in position. I truly feel like I’m not in my rhythm yet or where I want to be.”
Stroman, though, looked as comfortable as he has all season on the mound. He controlled the zone early and went after hitters all afternoon. After a single by Tim Anderson in the first, the right-hander settled down and retired the next 13 batters he faced.
The reason for that success: mixing up his pitches.
“I thought [P.J. Higgins and I] had a really good mix of pitches going on, to keep them very off balanced and getting weak contact,” Stroman said. “Just being aggressive and taking that mentality into each start.”
Stroman didn’t rely on one pitch more than the other on Sunday and it proved to keep hitters off balance. He threw five different pitches — slider, four-seam fastball, sinker, cutter and splitter — with the slider thrown the most at just 33% of the time.
That ability to keep hitters off balanced came at times when he needed it most — like in the seventh inning with the bases loaded. In a one-out jam, Stroman went to the slider on the first pitch against Reese McGuire, a pitch that the White Sox catcher saw just once in his first two at-bats. McGuire was out in front.
Then, Stroman came back and threw two inside cutters for three consecutive swinging strikes and a big strikeout. A lineout in the following at-bat ended the inning with no damage.
That’s the type of groove that he was in all game, even with his fielding. Not only did Stroman field a ground ball at 103.1 mph, but he also made a heads-up play in the sixth inning, fielding a bunt, spinning and throwing out the lead runner at third — all in one motion.
“I usually get off the mound pretty quick,” Stroman said. “I peaked real quick while I was running over there and I knew I had a chance.”
Stroman simply did it all on Sunday, and with his recent success on the mound, he could be that ace for Chicago for years to come.
He has shown that potential over his career and his resume speaks for itself. In three of Stroman’s past four seasons, he has finished among the top 12 in the Majors in ERA (2017, 2019, 2021), finished with under a 3.25 ERA in each of those seasons and made an All-Star appearance in 2019.
With his ERA now sitting at 3.95, the Cubs’ right-hander continues to do what he does best — even if he isn’t back to his old self yet.
“I’m always going to go out there and compete, regardless of how I feel,” Stroman said. “I’m always going to do my best to put everything aside. I know I can be better and I’m just trying to get to that point.”