Programming note: Brewers-Giants coverage starts today at 12:30 p.m. with Giants Pregame Live on Comcast SportsNet Bay Area
DENVER -- Hunter Strickland was in the midst of a dominant season as the closer for San Jose last year, overwhelming hitters in the Single-A California league with his 96 mph fastball, when he felt a pop.
It came on an inside fastball May 23 at High Desert. It came with a runner on third. It came with two outs in the ninth, and the Giants leading by a run. He recalled the details when I interviewed him this past spring.
“My mentality was that I still had a job to do,” said Strickland, who walked a lap around the mound before ascending it again. “I threw four or five more pitches and felt it pop every time. It just got stiffer and stiffer.”
Strickland must have seen the horrified look on his interviewer’s face, because he stopped to make a reassurance.
“Oh, I mean, it wasn’t unbearable or anything,” he said. “And I just needed to get one more out.”
Strickland got the out on a grounder, the Giants won and he recorded his ninth save. Then he gave left-handed high fives through the handshake line, his right arm limp at his side. He had Tommy John surgery before the month was out.
He sped though his rehab work, impressed Giants coaches with his work ethic in big league camp this spring, and then dominated after joining Double-A Richmond a few days before the 12-month anniversary of his elbow injury. He posted a 2.02 ERA in 35 2/3 innings, striking out 48 and walking just four. He held opponents to a .195 average. All of that earned him a September call-up, and he's spending his first day in the big leagues on Monday.
The 25-year-old isn’t satisfied with modest goals.
“I want to pick up where I left off, dominate when I get the ball, earn my way to San Francisco and help them win a World Series,” the Georgia native said this spring.
He was on the fast track before the injury. Strickland had an 0.86 ERA in 20 games and yielded just 10 hits while striking out 23 in 21 innings. The Giants were just getting ready to promote him when he got hurt.
Strickland taped mid-surgery photos of his arm to his locker this spring with "Pain is weakness leaving the body" written below it, the gore giving him a little extra motivation. He also missed time because of shoulder surgery when he was in the Pirates organization but said those issues haven’t recurred.
Strickland would love to be pain free the rest of his career, but he’s already shown he can manage either way. He credited his father, Ken, who spent time in the Tigers’ minor league system, for his whatever-it-takes attitude. It's a bit reminiscent of Brian Wilson, too. Coincidentally, Wilson's debut came at Coors Field. So Strickland's first game could be a parallel of sorts.
The Giants had to take Strickland off the 40-man roster at one point last season because they were squeezed for spots, but the right-hander worked with them. He re-signed a minor league deal and was added back after the season.
“That was easy,” he said. “I’ve been blessed here and that’s the only word to describe it. They take care of you here. They know what’s going on and how hard to push. They’ve been great to me.”