Struggles behind him, Strickland looks to earn spot in 'pen

26-year-old righty motivated to win role with Giants this spring

Struggles behind him, Strickland looks to earn spot in 'pen

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- Last year, Hunter Strickland drew motivation from where he had been. This spring, he must focus on where he's going.

Strickland's path is paved by his overpowering fastball. Following his promotion from Double-A Richmond, it helped him make nine scoreless relief appearances while striking out nine and walking none in seven innings for the Giants last year.

That raised Strickland's status as October approached. But he sagged instead of soared, yielding six home runs to establish a dubious postseason record for relievers. As imposing as Strickland's fastball was, opponents found it easier to hit when it traveled directly to the heart of the strike zone or when they knew it was coming, despite pitch velocities that neared or reached 100 mph.

"I know what I did," Strickland said Friday. "I simply left the ball up and they got the best of it." To improve, he added, "I pretty much know what I have to do."

Bochy on latest camp news

Manager Bruce Bochy filled in that blank for the 26-year-old Strickland.

"He needs to get a little smarter," Bochy said.

In a way, Strickland has begun this season with a fresh approach. Last year, he adorned his dressing stall with printouts of photographs of his right elbow taken while he underwent Tommy John elbow surgery in May 2013. They looked like snapshots taken at a butcher shop. "It keeps me humble, to remember where you were at," Strickland said at the time.

This year, Strickland's locker is just a locker. The graphic photos have been retired to a decorative shadow box, where they'll be encased with the jersey he wore in his Major League debut and displayed at his home in Zebulon, Ga.

Having healed successfully, Strickland will attempt the much more ambitious task of securing a spot in the Giants' bullpen. It can be assumed that Jeremy Affeldt, Santiago Casilla, Javier Lopez and Sergio Romo will retain their roles, supplemented by projected long relievers Yusmeiro Petit and Ryan Vogelsong. Adding the five starters leaves the Giants with one relief opening available -- if they begin the season with a 12-man pitching staff.

Gcast: Hunter Strickland

Strickland thus will contend with the likes of Jean Machi, George Kontos, Juan Gutierrez and Erik Cordier for that lone vacancy. He welcomes the challenge.

"It's a healthy competition," Strickland said. "I've never really been given anything anyway, so I like to compete. I like the opportunity, I like the pressure. At the same time, whatever helps the club win is the key and hopefully I can be a part of that."

Strickland already has made a positive impression on at least one key decision-maker, his manager.

"With the stuff and the command that he has, I know he's going to have a good spring," Bochy said. "He works as hard as anybody."

Strickland toils with an anxiety-free attitude, which is an asset for any accomplished athlete -- particularly a big league relief pitcher, who inevitably encounters fluctuating fortunes.

"The failures are what make guys better, I feel like," Strickland said. "I feel like they made me better. Just being in tune with yourself and knowing who you are and what you've got to do. In this game, you're not going to make it too far if you don't have confidence. If you don't believe in yourself, who else is going to believe in you?"

Chris Haft is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Haft-Baked Ideas, and follow him on Twitter at @sfgiantsbeat. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.