The Giants are scheduled to visit the White House on Thursday, when they will meet President Barack Obama to celebrate their 2014 World Series title and revisit memories of last October. Among the current Giants, perhaps those memories are more mixed for reliever Hunter Strickland.
Called up late last season, the hard-throwing right-hander had two crucial appearances in the National League Division Series: In Game 1 against the Washington Nationals, he got the Giants out of a bases-loaded situation in the sixth inning of an eventual 3-2 win, and in Game 2, he saved their 2-1 win with a scoreless 18th inning.
What most people probably remember first about Strickland’s postseason, though, is the record six home runs he surrendered, including one to the Royals’ Omar Infante in Game 2 of the World Series after which Strickland yelled toward Salvador Perez, nearly sparking an incident at the plate.
Strickland had all offseason to move on from his tumultuous October, and since being recalled by the Giants from Triple-A Sacramento on May 23, he has further distanced himself with his performance on the mound. In five appearances entering Tuesday, Strickland had pitched 71/3 innings for the Giants, allowing no runs and only one hit while striking out eight.
It’s a similar line to the one Strickland posted in nine regular-season outings at the end of 2014 – seven innings, five hits, no runs, nine strikeouts – before he blew up in October. But if his postseason overshadowed that promising debut, Strickland said Tuesday he has not taken the last 10 days as personal reassurance he can still retire big-league hitters.
“I don’t think so,” Strickland said. “This game, you’ve got to have confidence and you’ve got to have a short memory, especially being a reliever. Whenever you fail, you just look on that, pick out the positives and just learn from that and build off of it.”
One takeaway for Strickland from last October was he needed to make an adjustment after allowing most of his home runs on fastballs down the middle. Strickland still throws his high-90s fastball 63 percent of his pitches with the Giants this year compared to 68 percent in 2014, according to PITCHf/x data on Fangraphs.com. But he has mixed in a two-seamer that Strickland said he possessed last season but hardly threw.
“I’d say more than anything Hunter’s mixing up his pitches more and commanding the ball a little bit better,” Giants manager Bruce Bochy said Tuesday, adding “he’s more of a three-pitch guy,” referencing his slider.
“He got in the habit (last year) of trying to power his way, which he had a lot of success doing. … But this game’s all about adjustments, and I think he’s done that. He’s shown he has that ability with how he threw the ball in Sacramento, then he came up here, and he’s done the same here.”
Strickland had a 1.66 ERA in 15 games with Sacramento before the Giants added him as the 26th man for a doubleheader at Colorado on May 23, then kept him when they designated Casey McGehee for assignment the next day. The Giants have since carried 13 pitchers, something Bochy said will be re-evaluated “at some point,” though “not necessarily” before their upcoming trip to Philadelphia and New York.
If the Giants alter their roster, their only pitchers with options remaining are Chris Heston, who has been a stopgap in the rotation, and Strickland, who seems to have quickly earned the confidence of Bochy and his staff. In Strickland’s last two outings, he has been asked to protect leads of one and two runs in the eighth, and both times, he turned in a 12-pitch scoreless inning.
As it stands now, Strickland will be among the Giants when they visit the White House on Thursday, and he said he’s “definitely looking forward to it.” When images of last October are conjured, he said, he’ll be focused on the positives.
“You can’t sit here and dwell on the past and the mistakes you’ve made,” Strickland said. “It’s part of the game. So like I said, you just build off of it and move on.”