It was one of Marcus Stroman’s worst starts at Duke that got him a spot on the USA Baseball Collegiate National Team.
In his final appearance as a freshman two seasons ago, Stroman was given the ball for Duke’s series opener against N.C. State in the last series of the year. In only his fifth start that season, Stroman showed flashes of dominance with a fastball that sat in the mid-90’s, but the Wolfpack tagged him for six runs on the way to an 8-3 win.
Unbeknownst to Stroman, however, USA Baseball General Manager Eric Campbell was in attendance for that game. What he saw from the 18-year-old right-hander that day – despite the final pitching line – was enough to put him on the watch list for USA Baseball’s 2011 Collegiate National Team.
“What first made me stand up and look at Marcus was his start in 2010 at N.C. State,” said Campbell, who is in charge of scouting and administrative duties for USA Baseball’s national teams. “And then what he did in the Cape Cod League that summer, the numbers he put up, they just jumped off the page at us.”
Stroman rebounded from that N.C. State game and thrust himself onto the national spotlight with a dominant performance in the Cape Cod League in 2010. He logged 27 scoreless innings, 10 saves and a flawless relief appearance in the CCBL All-Star Game as the end-game reliever for the Orleans Firebirds.
He carried that success into his sophomore season at Duke with a 2.80 ERA and 90 strikeouts in 64 innings, which ranked him third in the nation in strikeouts per nine innings behind only Trevor Bauer of UCLA and Danny Hultzen of Virginia. Stroman also started 33 games at second base and hit .250 with nine doubles and 12 stolen bases.
“We saw he could do a lot of different things to help us,” Campbell said. “Along with what he can do on the mound, he has skills in the infield and the outfield.”
When Stroman was chosen as one of 22 players on the USA Baseball Collegiate National Team, he became part of a pitching staff that included National Stopper of the Year Corey Knebel of Texas, No. 1 Virginia’s end-game reliever Branden Kline and arms from national powerhouses TCU, Stanford, Texas A&M, Arizona State, LSU, Arkansas and Oregon State.
Stroman was the only one of Team USA’s 15 pitchers listed under 6-foot-2, but the only one capable of touching 98 mph with his fastball. The rising junior expounded his reputation as a power pitcher last season at Duke, but the velocity he flashed in his first outing with Team USA left a number of his teammates in shock.
“Yeah, they were, they were (surprised),” said Stroman, grinning. “I hadn’t thrown at practice because I threw in the cage. So they hadn’t seen me throw until the first game. A couple of the guys were shocked. It was fun seeing the expressions on their faces.”
Stroman used that fastball to dominate batters from the NECBL in Team USA’s warm-up before a five-game series with Japan. He struck out 12 of the first 13 batters he faced and logged two saves as Team USA went 5-1 in its tour of the Northeast.
“Coming in, I knew I was going to be in relief and kind of at the back-end,” said Stroman, who served as a starter, closer, second baseman and outfielder last year at Duke. “You also have guys like Corey Knebel who is the Stopper of the Year and Branden Kline who is from Virginia, so whenever I had my opportunity, I just went in there and got after it and did as well as I could. Coach (Tim Jamieson of Missouri) kind of settled me into the end role as a closer, and I pitched well so everything worked out well. It couldn’t have worked out any better.”
No kidding. Stroman never faltered as the bullpen ace. He did not give up a hit in his 8.1 innings, let just two of the 27 batters he faced reach base and was a key reason Team USA was able to win two one-run games against Japan. USA won the first three games of the five-game set against Japan, and came back late in two of those victories. Stroman preserved both of those wins with perfect relief outings both times.
“I had so many butterflies going in my stomach and I was nervous,” said Stroman of his first appearance against Japan. “Coming out of the bullpen that first game when I came out with runners on second and third, it was almost surreal. I was a lot more nervous than an ACC game for some reason. I guess it’s because you’re not only playing for your school, but you’re also playing for your country. It’s definitely nerve-racking, but it was probably the best moment of my life.”
Stroman stranded runners on second and third in the eighth inning in game one of the series, threw a perfect ninth in a game-three win and then spoiled two more scoring opportunities for Japan in a 1-1 tie in game four. International tiebreak rules allow a team to place two men on base with no outs once a game reaches extra innings, but even that was not enough for Japan to score against Stroman. He got three straight outs in the 10th inning that game, leaving runners on second and third to end the game.
Stroman models himself after another closer of similar stature, Atlanta Braves rookie all-star Craig Kimbrel. Kimbrel – like Stroman – does not fit the prototypical power pitcher build, but still possesses a mid to upper-90’s fastball and a sharp, diving breaking ball.
“He’s so young, and he has a similar build to me,” said the 5-9, 185-pound Stroman. “You always hear people saying you need a big pitcher, but he’s 5-9, 5-10, stocky build, and throws upper 90s with a hammer. I definitely look up to him.”
The Braves selected Kimbrel in the 33rd round of the 2007 draft out of high school and then again the following year in the third round after he finished one year at a community college. The Washington Nationals drafted Stroman in the 18th round of the 2009 draft, and Stroman could go just as high as Kimbrel – if not higher – in this year’s draft.
For now, however, Stroman’s focus is solely on Duke’s 2012 season. He came back to campus shortly after his final game with Team USA and has been working out with several of his teammates while also taking a summer class.
“(My focus) is to just to keep it going,” said Stroman of his success this summer. “I had a good summer, so (I want) to keep it going into the fall and have a good fall and have an even better year for Duke. Hopefully we will make an NCAA Regional. That is definitely the goal. I think we’re going to be really young, but I think we’re going to have a good squad this year.”