Orioles reliever Pedro Strop turned 27 earlier this month, but he's already overcome a career's worth of obstacles.
There were plenty of nights filled with uncertainty — and tears — along the way. There were times when he wondered whether his childhood dream would ever become reality, whether those times rehabbing and reinventing would ever pay off.
"A lot of tough times," Strop said, sitting at his locker in the corner of the Orioles' clubhouse on Sunday. "God was the only one who knew what was going to happen. I kept my mind strong. I was positive every time. I knew I would be healthy and I would find a team and I'd get to the big leagues. I cried a lot. I'd see my mom cry sometimes and I'd try to be tough, but when I was by myself, it was tough for me."
Now, the hard-throwing right hander is all smiles. He has finally found a home in the Orioles' bullpen. He's emerged to take over the club's eighth-inning set-up role. He is one of the big reasons why the Orioles have the best bullpen ERA in baseball.
"Honestly, he should be on the All-Star team," said Orioles closer Jim Johnson. "People talk about the success I've had, but obviously he's a big part of it. He's a big part of everything."
This season, Strop's 1.32 ERA is fifth among AL relievers with at least 28 appearances. He has held right-handed batters to a .131 average (8-for-61). He's sixth in the American League with 12 holds, and he's allowed just two earned runs in his last 24 appearances.
But when his Orioles teammates talk about Strop, they don't talk about the numbers. Instead, his composure always comes up first.
"Even when he doesn't have his best command and the first couple guys get on, he's really able to lock it in and shut down the inning," catcher Matt Wieters said. "The think with him is when his stuff's there, he's going to be lights out and he's going to go smooth through the inning. But when a couple guys get on, he's able to focus and throw up a zero."
It wasn't always like that for Strop. Growing up in the Dominican Republic, he signed with a Rockies scout five months before his 17th birthday to play shortstop. But a .208 career batting average after three seasons left him with little hope of breaking out of Class-A ball.
"When you're a shortstop and they start moving you all around, to second and third," Strop said with a smirk, "you know it's not good."
He wanted to try pitching and, in 2006, got that chance. He worked his way up from the bottom of the Rockies' system to Double-A in two years.
His 2008 season was cut short because of a stress fracture in his throwing elbow, an old injury that kept getting worse with each throw. Season-ending surgery followed. An inch-long screw was placed in his elbow.
"All of that made me tougher," Strop said. "That's the way I see it. I'm tougher now that I've gone through all those things. God wanted me to go through all that to make me the man I am right now. That's the way I see it."
Before he could return, the Rockies designated Strop for assignment. He was immediately picked up by the Rangers. But his delivery — he would crook his arm behind him before throwing — became a YouTube case study for future injuries. He's since modified his delivery to a more over-the-top arm angle and remained healthy. The next season, he had his first taste of the big leagues. But for most of the next three seasons, he was shuffled between Arlington and Triple-A.
"Every time out I'd be worried that I'd get sent down if I didn't do well," Strop said. "It was in my head. That's one of the reasons I really like it here. My teammates have shown confidence in me. [Orioles manager] Buck [Showalter] told me he has confidence in me. That helps a lot."
The Orioles acquired Strop last September as part of the trade that sent reliever Michael Gonzalez to Texas, and he immediately impressed his new teammates.
"I remember his arm when he was in Texas and you think, 'Wow, he's got a great arm,'" Wieters said. "But you never quite know what you're going to have command-wise and mentality-wise. When I caught him last year, I thought the same thing. He's got an arm you don't come across much, especially a guy who is as calm and collected as he is. It's an arm you hope to find through the draft and through free agency and we got him for I don't remember what."
This off season, Strop knew this might be his best — and maybe last — chance to find a home in the big leagues. He knew he'd enter spring training out of minor league options. For the first time, he didn't pitch winter ball in the Dominican, instead choosing to focus on the weight room.
He came to camp showing off a high 90s four-seam fastball and a biting mid-80s slider. But it was his ability to hone a 97-98 mph two-seam sinking fastball that made him stand out.
He said he toyed with the two-seamer before, but struggled controlling it because of the movement it gets. He's still working on controlling the sinker — Strop has walked 18 batters in 34 innings (but allowed just 20 hits and has 29 strikeouts) — but it has contributed to a 69.8 ground-ball percentage (the league average is 44), giving him the ability to pitch out of any jam.
"We talk a lot about baseball and things," Johnson said. "He knows he can't just sit there and blow it by guys. He knows he's got to think. He can locate. When we got him, I really felt like we stole him from Texas. He has great composure. He's still learning a couple things, but stuff-wise he's got some of the best stuff in the game."
Strop finally feels confident and comfortable. He is always wearing a smile — and a cut-off Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles T-shirt — around the Orioles clubhouse. He also wears Ninja Turtle boxer shorts under his game pants every day. "They've just always been my favorite," he said of the cartoon characters.
But make no mistake, there is still that hunger from the tough days toiling in the minors that keeps Strop going.
"He doesn't seem to get comfortable in it," Showalter said. "You can tell there's a lot of drive in him and he'll have an outing where he doesn't give up a run but you can tell he's not happy with the stress it may have involved. He obviously has a really good arm.
"And if you look at some of the physical issues he's had — I mean this guy's got a pin in his elbow — he's got some things he's overcome to get to this point."