MESA, Ariz. – Pedro Strop snapped his fingers, kicked his leg out and grabbed his crotch, doing his best Michael Jackson impression as “Billie Jean” played on the clubhouse speakers.
Strop got into a bit of a dance-off with Jose Veras on Thursday morning at Cubs Park. Strop has a loud laugh and a big smile and usually holds court in the middle of the room, sitting in a wide leather chair and joking with a revolving group of Latin players.
Strop played on the emotional, passionate Dominican Republic team that won last year’s World Baseball Classic. He threw 6.2 scoreless innings for his country, bombed with the Baltimore Orioles and rediscovered his swagger after a midseason trade to the Cubs, beating his chest and pointing to the sky when he escaped a jam.
“You don’t even know where that comes from,” Strop said. “And then you see videos of it and you say: ‘Oh, s---!’”
Strop sat at his locker and laughed: “It’s amazing. I have respect for the game. I love the game. Sometimes it looks like: ‘What is he doing?’ But it’s something that you cannot control.”
Strop emerged as a dominant reliever for the 2012 Orioles team that won 93 games and a wild card, going 5-2 with a 2.44 ERA in 70 appearances. But it began to snowball last season, giving up bloop singles and broken-bat hits and getting booed at Camden Yards.
“I started to rush, thinking that I was doing something wrong,” Strop said. “I started working on mechanics and that’s when I got lost. When I got traded over here, I (cleared) my mind: ‘I don’t want to think about mechanics. I don’t want to think about anything. I just want to execute my pitches.’ When things aren’t going good, your mind starts going fast.”
Strop had a 7.25 ERA when the Orioles packaged him with Jake Arrieta in last summer’s Scott Feldman deal. Cubs pitching coach Chris Bosio made a few suggestions, and Strop said he started throwing from the other side of the rubber.
Wrigley Field can be a disaster zone for struggling relievers, but Strop wound up looking like a future closer, going 2-2 with a 2.83 ERA and 42 strikeouts in 35 innings.
“I like the pressure,” Strop said. “My thing was just slow everything down. Instead of: ‘I’m going to strike this guy out right now. I’m going to throw the nastiest slider. I’m going to throw my hardest fastball.’ (I realized): ‘I got to throw that slider down and away. I got to throw that fastball down and in.’ That’s the difference.”
Strop is 28 years old and won’t be a free agent until after the 2017 season. The Cubs signed Veras to work the ninth inning, but it’s a one-year, $4 million flip-able contract (with a 2015 option). Strop worked around one hit and two walks and escaped with a scoreless inning in Thursday’s 5-2 loss to the Arizona Diamondbacks.
Would you like a shot to be a closer at some point?
“Sure,” Strop said with a laugh. “(But that’s) every reliever. That’s something I would love to do. But I like the eighth inning, too. I like the seventh. I like the sixth. I like to win. Let me tell you that.”