Hunter Strickland

Finally given his shot in ninth, Hunter Strickland closes out Dodgers

Finally given his shot in ninth, Hunter Strickland closes out Dodgers

LOS ANGELES — In a weird way, Hunter Strickland’s worst moments as a professional show why he was the perfect choice to pitch the ninth inning Thursday. 

When Strickland jawed with Salvador Perez in the World Series four years ago, he stood at his locker a few minutes later and calmly answered wave after wave of questions. When he fought Bryce Harper last summer, he again was waiting for reporters when the clubhouse door opened. The next day, the incident was behind him. 

Strickland is quick to move on in good times and bad. One of the best traits a closer can have is a short memory. No matter what had happened Thursday, when he was handed a 1-0 lead in the ninth inning at Dodger Stadium, Strickland would have asked for the ball Friday night. 

“Strick has the right demeanor to pitch in that situation,” catcher Buster Posey said. “He doesn’t let much phase him. He gives up a hit or a walk and it’s ‘alright.’ It’s always ‘alright, on to the next one.’” 

Making his first appearance as the new Giants closer, Strickland did in fact give up a leadoff single. Then he struck out Yasmani Grandal, got Logan Forsythe to pop up, and induced a game-ending grounder from Joc Pederson. The save was Strickland’s sixth as a big leaguer but first since an early morning meeting where Bruce Bochy named him the closer. When the Giants put Mark Melancon on the DL, Strickland was an easy choice. 

The 29-year-old had a dominant spring, separating from other candidates in the bullpen, and he has always had the equipment to pitch the ninth. The upper 90s fastball is now paired with a revamped slider, and the combination was overwhelming in spring training, when Strickland didn’t allow a run and barely broke a sweat. He was the same guy Thursday, and he said he didn’t let the new role became a hinderance. His preparation has not changed. 

“Honestly it’s just a job to do,” he said. 

All the relievers did theirs on Thursday, and every out was needed. Josh Osich took over for Ty Blach and carried over his hot spring, throwing a cutter past Cody Bellinger to end the sixth and strand a runner. Cory Gearrin got the seventh and froze Chris Taylor with a two-out, two-strike slider right down the middle with two on. Tony Watson blew through the eighth, striking out Corey Seager, Yasiel Puig and Bellinger in his Giants debut. Strickland handled the ninth. 

“They kept their poise well,” Bochy said. “Osich did a great job. Gearrin, that’s a big out when he had to. Watson looked good. All of them looked good. It’s a ‘pen we have a lot of confidence in.”

The Giants felt the same last spring and then Melancon went out and blew a save on Opening Day. It unraveled from there, but Strickland didn’t let this one get tight. The sellout crowd at Dodger Stadium never had a reason to stand in the ninth. Strickland stared down the Dodgers and came away with a handshake from Posey. 

“Those are the types of guys you need late in the game,” Bochy said of Strickland. “They’re fearless.”

Hunter Strickland to fill in as Giants closer with Mark Melancon on the DL

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AP

Hunter Strickland to fill in as Giants closer with Mark Melancon on the DL

LOS ANGELES -- Bruce Bochy said the Giants hope to get their closer back in a couple weeks. Mark Melancon's face told a different story.

Melancon, visibly upset by his latest health issue, said he will see a specialist in Los Angeles this week after an MRI showed inflammation in his right flexor. He was placed on the disabled list on Thursday morning, a few hours before the season opener, and Bochy later named Hunter Strickland his interim closer.

Melancon said he pitched in pain all spring. For now, he will get treatment to try to knock the inflammation out.

"It's just been a long calendar year," he said. "Thinking I would have plenty of time to get back to today. Not being available today is rough."

The Giants were a bit blindsighted by the development. Melancon felt discomfort much of last season and the team was out of the race early, but he waited until September to have pronator surgery. At the time, all parties claimed Melancon would be ready for the 2018 season, but early in camp he told reporters that he still felt something in his forearm. He went back-to-back for the first time during the last two days of spring training and the next day told the staff that something wasn't right.

It's unclear what comes next for Melancon. The bullpen order has certainly been reset, though. Bochy said Strickland earned the ninth inning with a scoreless spring.

"I think he threw the ball as well as anybody," Bochy said.

The set-up situation has also changed. Cory Gearrin is the eighth-inning right-hander for now and Sam Dyson will pitch in lower leverage situations at the start of the season after a rough spring. Tony Watson will join Gearrin in the eighth.

Strickland looks back on year that was overshadowed by one pitch

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AP

Strickland looks back on year that was overshadowed by one pitch

SCOTTSDALE — There are 79 National League relievers who have thrown at least 100 innings since Hunter Strickland became a full-time big leaguer in 2015. When you sort them by ERA, you find the hard-throwing right-hander near the top. With a 2.75 ERA over his three full seasons, Strickland ranks ninth in the NL, ahead of All-Stars like Milwaukee’s Corey Knebel and San Diego’s Brad Hand, and budding Pirates star Felipe Rivero. 

By most measures, Strickland has been a reliable performer for a Giants bullpen that’s been a disaster for long stretches of the past couple of seasons. And yet, you won’t find another pitcher on staff who has his name thrown into more fake trades on social media or talk radio. It’s not hard to connect the dots. 

Just when it seemed fans had started to forget Strickland’s rough 2014 postseason, he threw a fastball at Bryce Harper’s hip and then exchanged blows in a fight that was one of the low points of a 98-loss season. Strickland knows what that did to his reputation. 

“It’s tough to go out there and have people not like you and to have this perception about you that you’re this hothead, because honestly I don’t feel like that,” he said. “I don’t think of myself as a hothead.”

In the clubhouse, Strickland is the opposite of the man most see on the mound. He is as soft-spoken and accessible as any Giant, but like most relievers, he has a switch. It just so happens that his occasionally goes to a more intense level, leading to a couple of high-profile confrontations with Harper and with the Royals in the 2014 postseason.

“Obviously between the lines we’re competitors, we’re going out there competing, and that’s our livelihood out there — that’s how we’re putting food on the table for our family, so we do take it personally,” Strickland said. “Granted I do make mistakes. You know, I’m human — I understand that, so I do regret putting my team in situations like last year.

“If I could go back and change certain things then I definitely would, because I don’t want to be that guy. I want to be a team player and the guy that everyone has confidence in and believes — whether it’s the fan base or my teammates — that when I’m going out there that I’m going to do it and play ball the right way and get the outs that I need to get.”

Strickland tried to move on quickly from the Harper fight, starting that afternoon, when he stood at his locker and waited for reporters to enter the clubhouse. The situation was prolonged by an unusually long appeals process, but on the field, Strickland had a short memory. In 47 appearances after the fight, he posted a 3.09 ERA. 

Strickland enters this season as the favorite to be Bruce Bochy’s go-to pitcher in the seventh inning, but he knows he has some things to clean up. Asked what his spring goal is, he immediately pointed to the need to find better weapons against left-handed hitters. They had a .876 OPS against him last season compared to a .587 OPS from right-handers. Strickland's goal is to get away from his fastball at times, as lefties often have an easy time picking it up out of his hand.

“You always need something soft to keep them honest,” Bochy said. “Whether it’s a changeup or splitter, which he can throw, or a breaking ball that he can throw to both sides of the plate.”

Regardless, Strickland’s success against right-handers will keep him in the late-innings mix, and the 29-year-old is eager to prove his worth after a season that was overshadowed by one moment. 

“You can’t change the past,” he said. “You can only move forward, and I know that I have a ways to go to earn the fan base’s trust, or certain people’s, things like that. I’ll do what it takes. You’ve got to to live with the consequences when you do something wrong, and I’m okay with that.”