After the Toronto Blue Jays‘ Marcus Stroman cruised through the bottom of the seventh inning in Sunday’s 5-3 victory over the Tampa Bay Rays at Tropicana Field, ESPN announcer Dave Flemming noted it was the young right-hander’s first Opening Day start.

However, Flemming added, “You would not know it.”

Indeed, taking the ball for the defending American League East champs and effectively taking the mantle from departed ace David Price, Stroman looked confident, unfailingly competitive and, above all, largely dominant.

With an assist from home plate umpire Mike Everitt’s consistently low strike calls, Stroman pounded the bottom of the zone with his heavy sinker and induced 15 ground-ball outs compared to just three outs in the air.

His final line wasn’t perfectand he missed a shot at a complete game after taking the hill to start the ninth and yielding a home run and a singlebut it should still bring a smile to the faces of Jays fans: eight innings pitched, six hits allowed, three earned runs, one walk, five strikeouts, plus a notch in the win column.

It’s nearly impossible to overstate how much an ace-level Stroman would mean for Toronto this season.

The Blue Jays returned baseball’s highest-scoring offense almost completely intact. Reigning AL MVP Josh Donaldson is there, joined by the slugging contract-year duo of Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion. And they’ll get a full season out of 2015 trade deadline pickup Troy Tulowitzki, who cracked a two-run homer in the eighth that proved to be the difference in the game.

The Jays will plate runs in bunches—that much we know. But they’ll need their starting pitching to carry its share of the load minus Price, who bolted over the winter for a gaudy payday with the division-rival Boston Red Sox.

The rest of the rotation has talent, with promising youngster Aaron Sanchez, 23, joining changeup artist Marco Estrada, veteran knuckleballer R.A. Dickey and left-hander J.A. Happ.

Stroman, though, is the obvious candidate to emerge as a No. 1. And if Sunday’s performance is any indication, he’s up for the challenge.

Coming into 2015, Toronto was looking at Stroman as an emerging rotation anchor. But the former first-round pick tore his ACL during spring training fielding drills and didn’t pitch until Sept. 12.

When he did come back, however, he came back strong. In four September starts, Stroman went 4-0 with a 1.67 ERA and 18 strikeouts in 27 innings. And he got his first taste of the postseason, making two starts in the division series against the Texas Rangers and picking up a win in Game 3 of the American League Championship Series against the Kansas City Royals.

Now, Stroman—who has a scant 24 regular-season starts to his name and won’t turn 25 until May 1—is hoping to channel his tantalizing potential into a full 162-game grind.

The projection systems don’t scream Cy Young contender, with ZiPS forecasting a 3.80 ERA in a modest 104.3 innings, per FanGraphs

Stroman, however, has proved himself capable of shattering expectations. Remember, this is the guy who “stunned” renowned orthopedist Dr. James Andrews with his ACL recovery, as Stroman boasted last August.

Last year, Stroman was at Tropicana Field to watch his buddy Chris Archer make his first Opening Day start, as Sportsnet’s Arden Zwelling reported. This year, he outdueled Archer on the very same mound.

“It’s crazy how everything comes full circle,” Stroman told Zwelling. “I truly believe everything does happen for a reason. So, I’m just thankful—just thankful that everything played out as it did.”

Yes, we’re one contest into the season. The Rays are not the ’27 Yankees or even the 2016 Yankees when it comes to the lumber. And again, Stroman benefited from some friendly calls below the knees, as’s Michael Clair noted:

But in a crowded division with flawed contenders stacked top to bottom, every club is looking for an edge. For that extra something to push it over the top.

For Toronto, a full-blown Stroman breakout hitched to its world-beating offense would fit the bill.

So far, so good.


All statistics current as of April 3 and courtesy of unless otherwise noted.

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