Catcher Martin likes what he sees in Blue Jays' Stroman

DUNEDIN, FLA. -

You wouldn’t blame Russell Martin if he felt like he was in a remake of Ground Hog Day.

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Today is Monday and here’s another new pitcher to learn about.

This time it was Marcus Stroman who hooked up with the Blue Jays new catcher for the first time in a game. Stroman worked 22/3 scoreless innings and while it was not all smooth sailing, Martin was just as impressed with Stroman as he has been with the other Blue Jay starters.

“He’s got great feel for pitching out there,” said Martin. “He’s got an electric arm. All of his pitches are quality, so it’s a matter of just picking one. Today he had everything going, had good movement on the fastball, threw some sinkers too. I think he was happiest with the change-up strikeout he had against a righty today. He threw a change-up right off of the fastball plane and got (Evan) Gattis on a punchout there. But overall it was a good day. He was attacking the zone. Probably a little excited, but that’s expected.”

Stroman got a little rough around the edges in the third inning, walking a pair before hitting Jonathan Villar with his final pitch of the afternoon.

“Obviously you don’t want to walk that many guys, I did hit a guy, but I felt like my command felt pretty good,” said Stroman. “I just felt like maybe I was trying to be a little too fine. But overall pretty good, first time throwing to Russell in a game so we’re still getting a feel for each other and it’s all positive, arm felt great, body felt great, so take away the positives.”

Somebody once defined a catcher as “part guru, part beast of burden.” Martin is all of that. He understands the importance of knowing what his pitchers like to do, how they think, how they react. It’s a time-consuming process to capture all that information on a 12-man staff that is ever-changing.

“It’s still getting to know them, talking about their pitch repertoire, how they like to attack hitters and just a general game plan,” said Martin. “So far it’s been going well. It’s a process. It’s going to take time to get more comfortable, but so far so good. I feel comfortable back there. I feel like the guys are competing hard and I’m having a good time doing it.”

Stroman, like all the other pitchers, is impressed with Martin’s presence on the field and in the clubhouse. After Robbie Grossman led off the game with a single, Martin gunned him down trying to steal second.

“He’s a leader,” said Stroman. “He’s a competitor and a leader and that’s what you want. You want that bulldog mentality back there and he has confidence in me to execute every single pitch. Any time you know your backstop has that confidence in you it kind of gives you a little more motivation to get the pitch in there and get the job done. Great game caller, catch and throw, you saw it today in the first inning, and just excited, excited to compete with him.”

Stroman’s two-seam fastball, a pitch he credits for much of his success last season, immediately got Martin’s attention. After he walked Hank Conger to lead off the third, Stroman threw one pitch, a two-seamer, to get a double-play groundball.

“It can definitely be a ground ball pitch, especially with the velocity down in the zone,” said Martin. “It’s probably going to induce a lot of ground balls. He can command both sides of the plate, so it’s going to play on lefties or righties. Also he can get some punchouts by having guys give up on it. But all of his pitches are good. He’s got a good curveball, a good slider, a good changeup, good velocity. He’s going to be good. He is good.”

Sick Bay

Dayan Viciedo, signed to a minor-league contract last week, was scheduled to start in left field against Houston on Monday but he was a late scratch because of a foot infection. His status is day-to-day.

ADVANTAGE IZTURIS

As the second base competition begins to unfold, there is a growing sense that when the dust settles over the next three weeks, the Blue Jays will likely opt for the veteran presence of Maicer Izturis.

He will have to earn it, of course, both with his bat and his glove but, with so many uncertain positions around the diamond and, especially, the raw nature of Devon Travis, a trusted brand like Maicer Izturis will be appealing to the Blue Jays brass.

Izturis is coming off a season lost to knee surgery but that doesn’t seem to be any kind of a drawback.

“If anything, I think he’s in better shape and moving better than I’ve seen him move over the last two years,” said manager John Gibbons.

Izturis, like many Blue Jays veterans, did not get a lot of batting practice before being thrown into games this past week because of weather and a short period of acclimation in camp.

“I’m trying to do my best,” said Izturis, with a big bag of ice on his repaired left knee. “I’m in good shape and I’m feeling good. Right now I’m trying to get more at-bats and see a lot of pitches because I didn’t play last year and it’s important to get more comfortable at the plate.”

Obviously he is aware of the competition at second base but he is nothing if not a team player.

“I am here to help the team,” he said. “I’ll play anywhere ... third, second, shortstop.”

The ice and the small knee brace he wears are not the only reminders of the ligament he tore last April.

“Every day I need to warm up a lot, stretch more,” he said. At the end of the day he always heads for the ice bucket.

“That’s my routine now. After the surgery, after every workout I have to put ice on it.”

LEFTY FRANCIS MAKING A STRONG PITCH TO GO NORTH

Left-hander Jeff Francis, whose once stellar career has been derailed by injuries, is quietly making a good impression on the Blue Jays talent evaluators as a non-roster invitee and candidate to make their bullpen.

“He certainly has the experience,” said pitching coach Pete Walker. “He has a good breaking ball, changeup, knows how to locate his fastball and he’s working on a little drop-down action as well. As you get a little bit older you can reinvent yourself a little bit. He’s a guy who’s trying to do that. He’s certainly going to get a long look here and if he fits into the plans, he fits into the plans. He’s done a nice job so far.

“He’s a pro and goes about his business the right way. He’s prepared every day. Certainly you like that in a bullpen guy who could spot start.”

With Brett Cecil in line to close games or at least share that load with another closer, Aaron Loup would be the only other lefty in the pen. It’s very likely that a third lefty will be taken north on the roster to start the season. There are other candidates but Francis has gotten the attention of manager John Gibbons.

“He’s a strike-thrower and he knows how to pitch,” said Gibbons. “We’ll be watching him closely.”

Francis is taking this spring experience philosophically.

“I’m here and I have a uniform,” said Francis, with a smile. “That’s all you can ask for sometimes. I’m not sure what the chances are but all I can do is take care of what I can control and see what happens.”

Francis, from Vancouver, was the ninth overall pick in the 2002 amateur draft. He spent five years as an important part of the Colorado Rockies rotation but, after shoulder surgery in 2009 has bounced around some in the last four seasons, trying to regain some of his past glory.

“I’m certainly trying to make adjustments,” said Francis. “You have to do that if you want to stick around. It’s nice of Pete to say those things. I’ve had a good time working with him so far.”

Needless to say, he would jump at a chance to be work out of the Toronto bullpen.

“Absolutely,” he said. “I’ve had a taste of working out of the pen the last two seasons. There are certain adjustments you have to make. I’ve gone through it comfortably. All I can do is go out on the field and at least make their decision difficult. If I can do that, great. If you don’t break camp with the team, sometimes there are opportunities later in the season.”

One of the adjustments he’s trying to make is to drop down and throw sidearm, the way Loup does sometimes.

“I’m trying to work on it, yeah,” he said. “It’s funny that what feels to me like my knuckles are scraping the ground is only a couple of inches different. So it’s something I’ve been trying to get used to and get a visual on. You go back and look at some tape and see where you are and what the ball is doing differently. Anything that can give the hitter a puzzling look gives me an edge.”

OSUNA TURNING HEADS

Roberto Osuna has become a person of great interest in Blue Jays camp. At the very worst, he has put himself on the fast track to become a prime candidate to make the pitching staff in 2016. But, hold that thought, because nobody on the field staff or in the front office is dismissing him yet as a candidate for this year.

At the ripe old age of 20, Osuna has already been a pro for four years, having signed out of Mexico as a 16-year-old. Two years ago he underwent Tommy John surgery and now has bounced back big time and is impressing everyone who watches him pitch. He only enhanced those opinions Monday, tossing two perfect innings against the Tigers in Lakeland, striking out a pair in the process.

“This is a good feeling, a really good feeling. I’ve spent a lot of time not feeling this,” said Osuna, referring to his many months of injury rehab.

He and his roommate Miguel Castro have both been stoking the fires of anticipation by their performances here.

“Like everybody else watching them you see great stuff, you see poise, you see mound presence, two kids with a lot of upside,” said pitching coach Pete Walker. “Obviously it’s early in their careers and their first real chance to be out here in a major-league setting. It’s early and the bats are a little bit behind the pitchers right now so I don’t think you can put too much stock in the first couple of appearances. But they both look strong and capable. They’ll get some innings to show us what they can do.”

Like most young players, Osuna is thriving on the chance to pick the brains of proven big-league pitchers on the staff.

“Who knows,” he said. “Being here everyone’s got the same chance and the same opportunity, so I hope I can make the team, but nobody knows. Nobody knows, and the only thing I know is I’m going to do my best.”



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