As the Orioles went 5-1 on this week's six-game homestand, it's been an eventful week for right-handed reliever Pedro Strop.
Earlier this week, with closer Jim Johnson hospitalized with food poisoning, Strop had the opportunity to step into the ninth-inning role and earned his first two career big-league saves on back-to-back nights Tuesday and Wednesday against Toronto.
Strop, who has spent most of the season pitching in an eighth-inning set-up role, thrived under the late-inning pressure, throwing 98-mph two-seam sinking fastball that cuts off the corners of the plate.
And lost in Orioles' five-run ninth-inning rally in their 5-2 win over the Athletics on Sunday afternoon was another dominating bullpen performance that kept the game close late.
And Strop was front and center again, pitching out of a ninth-inning jam. With the Orioles trailing 2-0, Strop allowed a one-out double to pinch hitter Daric Barton and walked Seth Smith to put runners athirst and second, but he regrouped to get an infield-fly rule pop-up from Oakland catchedr Kurt Suzuki and a ground out from Eric Bogard to end the game.
It didn't necessarily seem that important at the time because the Orioles were trailing and had been handcuffed by A's starter Bartolo Colon, but following Baltimore's ninth-inning comeback, Strop had his major-league career-high third relief win of the season.
After acquiring Strop from the Rangers late last season – he was 2-0 with a 0.73 ERA in 12 1/3 innings with Baltimore -- the Orioles were excited about him being a key part of the bullpen this spring. And while the Orioles have plenty of late-inning possibilities, Strop's live arm would make him a favorite for eighth-inning duty.
Strop (3-1) has thrown three straight scoreless ninth-inning outings, lowering his ERA to 2.08 (13 IP/3 ER) on the season.
This season, Strop's ability to establish his mid- to high-90s fastball for a strike early in the count – and specifically leaning on his two-seam sinking fastball to compliment his mid-80s slider in order to keep hitters off balance – has helped the 26-year-old become a late-inning factor.
"I'm pitching more with my fastball now," Strop said. "I used to be throwing off-speed pitches and trying to be sneaky, but now I know I can challenge people with my sinker and make them hit it. It makes it easier. More ground balls and stuff, less pitches in innings. Like before I would get in an inning and throw a lot of pitches. I'd have two strikeouts, three strikeouts, but have a lot of pitches. It's a long season, so the less pitches you throw in an inning, it's better for keeping you not hurt."
Strop has honed that two-seamer into a pitch he can control better, and Strop's two-seamer has incredible movement.
"I was working a lot on my sinker, trying to control it the most I can because before I had good movement, but I couldn't control it for a strike or anything," he said. "I was just practicing. If I throw some for strikes they're going to swing at some that are balls. Before they knew they didn't have to swing at it because they knew it was a ball. I was focusing on getting a couple of sinkers for strikes so they could swing on the ones that were balls."
Catcher Matt Wieters said Strop's ability to utilize his two-seamer has made him a much more dangerous late-inning reliever.
"It's big," Wieters said. "It's almost like another pitch because it's got so much movement on it. It's the same velocity as his four-seamer but it's got enough movement where it's almost a pitch that someone's got to look for it to really square it up. Any time you can get that kind of movement for a strike and even down in the zone for a strike. He can start it for a strike and it can run out of the zone and still get some strike calls on it."