Strop dazzles for first ‘W’

At the World Baseball Classic, I had the opportunity to sit with former Chronicle columnist Gwen Knapp. And during the Dominican Republic’s championship win at AT&T Park, we had a fun conversation about relief pitcher Pedro Strop.

Strop was electric that night, entering the game in the seventh inning to protect a 3-0 lead with two on and no outs. The right-handed fireballer proceeded to notch back-to-back strikeouts of Puerto Rico’s Carlos Rivera and Pedro Valdes, before inducing a weak pop out by Jesus Feliciano, only to walk off the mound after 13 pitches without so much as allowing a base runner to advance.

It was one of the most impressive innings I’ve seen from any pitcher this year, after which I declared to Gwen that within two years, Strop would be one of the most dominant relievers in the Major Leagues. Although she was sitting in my periphery, I sensed she rolled her eyes.

Well, Gwen, I hope you remembered my statement fondly after Strop’s remarkable eighth inning comeback against the Giants Saturday night.

Overall, Strop hasn’t faired well in the 2013 regular season, entering into play Saturday with an 0-3 record, and a 5.23 ERA.

In fact, it has been a rough season for the entire backend of a bullpen which carried the Dominicans to a WBC crown. Setup man Santiago Casilla, as Giants fans well know, recently returned to action after spending nearly two months on the disabled list. And Dominican closer Fernando Rodney, who saved all eight WBC games for manager Tony Pena, has been less than dominant for Tampa Bay, posting a 4.01 ERA despite 25 saves.

But after tanking in the first half of the season in Baltimore, Strop has seen a resurgence since being acquired by the Cubs last month along with starter Jake Arrieta for veteran Scott Feldman. And while he hasn’t surrendered a run in 11 appearances for the Cubs, Saturday’s performance was Strop’s pinnacle performance thus far.

After loading the bases due to two of his own fielding blunders, Strop locked up with Buster Posey for a dazzling nine-pitch battle. Strop quickly jumped in front of Posey 1-2, before the reigning National League MVP went to work, fouling off an array of filthy offerings, as Strop cut up the corners of the plate. On the eighth pitch of the at bat, Posey had his best pitch to hit – a blazing 96-mph heater up in the zone – but just missed hammering it, instead fouling the heater straight back.

It seemed Strop would have to challenge again, but instead he pounded the inside corner with a 97-mph cutter, sawing off Posey to induce a broken-bat grounder to shortstop, which, with a drawn in infield, allowed Starlin Castro to easily cut down the go-ahead run at the plate. From there, Strop made quick work of Pablo Sandoval and Hunter Pence, ultimately ripping through the heart of the Giants’ batting order to quash a bases-loaded, no-out rally.

Thanks to a Nate Schierholtz solo home run off closer Sergio Romo to lead off the top of the ninth, Strop earned his first win of the year. And now, 2013 numbers aside, I’m comfortable in declaring – Gwen, at this moment, Pedro Strop is one of the most dominant relievers in the Major Leagues.

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