Hunter Strickland spent his off-season preparing for whatever role the Giants had in store for him, and shortly before the season opener it turned out that role was a little bit more high-pressure than he might have expected.
When it was announced that Mark Melancon would be starting the season on the 10-day disabled list, stretching an already thin pitching staff even thinner, it was Strickland who got the news on Thursday that he would be taking his place.
Strickland found out just hours before the first pitch, and according to Bruce Bochy he took the news with stoicism and determination.
Perhaps this was because he spent part of the off-season working with John Smoltz to come up with an off-speed pitch to complement his four-seam fastball. According to Chris Haft, the two of them worked on adding a slider to Strickland’s repertoire, with Smoltz instructing him to throw it with the same conviction as his fastball to keep hitters off-balance.
And he has certainly done that. He and his fellow reliever Josh Osich both had scoreless springs and have earned the higher-pressure situations they will be tested with to start this year.
Osich also put in work this off-season, going back to the delivery he used in his rookie season to try to regain some of the dominance he’s lost along the way. In addition to studying videos to unlearn the changes he made in the 2016 and 2017 seasons, he is focusing on his fastball, changeup and cutter, leaving his curveball in the dust along with his 2017 stats.
So far, though one game is an incredibly small sample size, they have both delivered. Osich walked one and struck out two in a scoreless sixth inning, whereas Strickland gave up a hit and proceeded to get a strikeout, pop out and groundout to close out the game without too much drama.
In addition to the announcement that Strickland will be closing, Bochy also announced that Tony Watson and Cory Gearrin will be sharing set-up duties for now, with Watson striking out three in the eighth inning on Thursday and Gearrin successfully pitching through traffic in the seventh.
This is a bullpen with a lot of pressure on their shoulders from their manager and team. Not to mention the spotlight placed on them by the fans; fans who have come to associate the Giants bullpen with epic collapses and blown saves. So they have a tough road ahead of them while so many on the staff are injured, in terms of keeping the team afloat. However, Thursday’s game was at least a small indication that they might be capable of bridging the gap.