Rosie DiManno: Strip gets a grip on tips and tells in Blue Jays’ win over Astros

BUFFALO—A sermon on the mound is never a good look in baseball.

First comes the catcher for a word, then comes the pitching coach for a parley and then — well, the skipper with the hook.

But Charlie Montoyo didn’t have to traipse out of the dugout and grab Ross Stripling by the ear on Saturday afternoon.

The starting pitcher, whose grip on a spot in the Blue Jays’ starting rotation was shaky only a couple of weeks ago, has reinvented himself lickety-split, both in mechanics and eliminating the ticks — the tells — that had him divulging his pitches.

It was in the fourth inning of a scoreless game between the Blue Jays and the Astros that Stripling, with two out, gave up a pair of singles, hit a batter to load the bases, and walked in a run on four straight balls to No. 8 hitter Myles Straw. Which is what brought Pete Walker to the hill for a conference, with Martin Maldonado about to step into the box, he of the grand slam less than 24 hours earlier contributing to Houston’s 13-1 hammering of Toronto.

Stripling, however, settled down immediately, getting Maldonado to swing on a 95-m.p.h. fastball that squelched the threat of huge Stripling-style damage — the Stripling of April and much of May — and the inning.

Between the right-hander’s five innings of yeoman work, apart from the freebie gifted, and some sparkling defence by the Jays — most splendidly via the brace of Juniors, Lourdes Gurriel and Vladimir Guerrero, the latter actually outshining his two-run homer with his glove — Toronto dumped the visitors to Sahlen Field 6-2. And spit out the sour residue of Friday’s embarrassing smack-around.

Pick your D highlight: Either Guerrero orchestrating a 5-3-6 put-out of Jose Altuve in the first frame, Altuve trying to score on a single by Carlos Correa — third to first to third — or Gurriel with a missile from left field that nailed Straw at the plate in the third, when the teams were still locked at zero-zero. After which Guerrero gave Altuve a little finger-waggle. “You know what?” Guerrero explained later about that gesture. “You’re not going to run on me.”

For Stripling, it was only his second W of the season on the heels of his first, last outing. But three solid efforts in a row, counting seven innings of relief against Tampa Bay back on May 24, all of that a culmination of reworking his delivery under guidance from Walker. The mechanical adjustment has helped Stripling’s timing on his fastball away or up and in, resulting in “smaller misses” when the pitch goes awry.

“If I’m trying to go away, I don’t miss over the plate as much. It still might get away. But if it’s more up or down or off the plate versus leaking back on to the plate and giving up damage, that’s the big difference.”

Blue Jays starter Ross Stripling reacts after an out at the plate helped his cause in the third inning of Saturday’s win over the Astros in Buffalo.

As well, muting the tipping of pitches seized upon by the opposition — as if a historically dirty, cheating outfit like the Astros need any more beneficence.

It’s been a career-long thing with Stripling, as he admits. “Man, I’ve done all sorts of stuff. I’ve done stuff with my feet, I’ve done stuff with my mouth. I used to bite my lip on curveballs. I had no idea I was doing it.”

Until former Dodgers teammate Chase Utley pointed out the weird lip gnaw. Said, “Dude, you’re biting your lip on the curveball.” What are you talking about, retorted Stripling. “Go watch.” Sure enough, on video, “every single curveball, I’m biting my lip. It’s just stuff that starts creeping in that you have no idea about. It’s something I’ve had to battle my whole career.”

Latterly, as Walker twigged, and as Stripling revealed on his podcast recently: “I was having a hard time with tipping my pitches because I was going up to the bill of my cap on some pitches, like my curveball. On other pitches, I was only going up to my chin. You can’t give major-league hitters that kind of an advantage.”

So, cleaned that up, kind of like breaking a bad habit, chewing your nails or playing with your hair on Zoom calls.

Stripling, who gave up one run on seven hits, was appropriately grateful to the defenders who did him such a solid on an afternoon when the breeze blowing across the field was so stiff that he stuffed the aerodynamically impacted curveball back in his pocket.

“Awesome to see, definitely picked me up,” he told reporters post-game, acknowledging that he’d had to battle throughout. Guerrero certainly set that tone in the opening frame and Gurriel had the exclamation point with yet another of his signature hard, accurate throws to the plate, his seventh outfield assist on the year.

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“I was giving up hits, a walk in there, hit a batter,” said Stripling of the third-inning sequence. “Gurriel’s throw was as good as any that I’ve seen while I’ve physically been in the field. I didn’t even go to back that one up because I figured (Straw) was probably going to score.”

Instead, Stripling was a few feet from Reese McGuire when the dead-eye missile arrived, with Straw making no attempt to slide, probably figured he was home and cooled out on the play. “Just a perfect throw,” Stripling continued.

Of Guerrero wiping out Altuve in the opening frame, Stripling observed of the short-hop to Bo Bichette and tag: “Two really good plays right there that really changed the course of the game, for sure. “Always good when your team is picking you up like that.”

Guerrero: “Basically, I’ve been watching Altuve a lot. He’s very aggressive on the bases. I already knew that. As soon as I saw that the throw bit to the side, kind of wide, I was ready to throw to third.” He meant the throw from Joe Panik at third to first, leaving Guerrero unable to make the out on Correa’s infield single. “Thank God I put a good throw and got him out.”

Gurriel didn’t speak to reporters after the game, but Guerrero offered a disdainful analysis on Straw’s bid to score on Altuve’s third-inning single. “Honestly, I don’t know why they keep trying to run on him.” On Gurriel’s arm. “As soon as he got the ball and he turned to home plate, I knew already that (Straw) was out.”

Most of Toronto’s offence was provided by Panik’s three-run shot in the fourth, the veteran getting a lot more playing time with Cavan Biggio on the IL, and Guerrero’s own league-leading — in the moment — 18th jack in the fifth, which ushered Bichette home and chased Houston starter Jose Urquidy to the showers.

Just as impressive on the Guerrero watch was how he beat out a throw in the fourth for an infield single, demonstrating previously unknown foot speed, to go along with his big-bop power and nimble defence.

“Compared to last year, when I really had to think about that, that I had to be fast, this year I feel a lot quicker,” he said.

And he’s becoming accustomed to the defence laurels, though likely not at all tired of hearing the compliments.

“I feel very confident right now playing at first, because of the work I put in. Basically, I’m learning a new position. When you really put in the effort, eventually it will pay off.

“That’s what’s happening right now.”

Rosie DiManno is a Toronto-based columnist covering sports and current affairs for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @rdimanno

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