ST. PETERSBURG -- With the offense struggling, Marcus Stroman took matters into his own hands and single-handedly gave the Blue Jays a chance to escape with a series victory at Tropicana Field.
Stroman celebrated his 25th birthday by providing a present of his own with a career-high nine strikeouts in a 5-1 win over the Rays on Sunday afternoon. He allowed one run on three hits and walked just two in his best outing of the year.
The fact that Stroman's strong performance came on a day in which he had little margin for error made it even more impressive. The four-run victory overshadowed what was an otherwise tight game with the score tied at 1 into the ninth. Stroman was the sole reason Toronto had an opportunity to steal the game late.
"Special kid," Blue Jays manager John Gibbons said. "It wasn't a must-win game, but the way things have been going lately, it was a big win for us, and it was tight the whole way.
Stroman once again used his sinker to perfection, but it was his entire repertoire that got the job done. Toronto's No. 1 starter has a six-pitch arsenal and he was using each of those to reach new heights with his strikeout total.
Each of Stroman's first four strikeouts came on different pitches: curveball, cutter, four-seam fastball and slider. The variety of pitches and speeds kept the Rays off-balance all afternoon and as a result, Stroman allowed just one baserunner to reach scoring position.
It wasn't perfection, but it also wasn't far off. The lone mistake came in the sixth when Evan Longoria hit a hanging slider over the wall in left-center field. That tied the game at 1 and the score remained that way until the Blue Jays broke it open with a four-run ninth.
Darwin Barney provided a late birthday gift with a pinch-hit double to lead off the ninth and Troy Tulowitzki added the icing on the cake later in the frame with a three-run homer. Up until that point, it was basically all Stroman all the time.
"I didn't know I had that many, to be honest with you," Stroman said of the nine strikeouts. "I felt like me and [catcher Russell Martin] had a really good mix all day. I felt like I mixed my pitches better today than I had the entire year.
"There was more diversity and variety, and that pretty goes off Russell reading hitters and reading at-bats and us kind of working on the same page."
The nine strikeouts were the most by a Blue Jays pitcher on his birthday as Stroman surpassed David Price (2015), Mark Rzepczynski (2010) and Roy Halladay (2008), who each had eight. Stroman also became the sixth Toronto starter to win on his birthday. The others were Price, Marco Estrada, Brandon Morrow, Halladay and David Wells.
Gregor Chisholm has covered the Blue Jays for MLB.com since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @gregorMLB and Facebook, and listen to his podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.