A rookie year in the life of Ross Stripling
By Cary Osborne
On a spring Arizona night, Ross Stripling arrived at a Scottsdale restaurant with a girlfriend and left with a fiancée.
Shelby said yes.
A couple since they were students at Texas A&M, the baseball player and school teacher were now engaged. Stripling had the moment of a lifetime. And then kept having more in 2016.
There are rookie seasons, and then there is Ross Stripling’s incredible life as a rookie.
And after getting engaged, things kept happening and never stopped.
Ross Stripling wasn’t supposed to make the Dodgers’ Opening Day roster, for God’s sakes. He spent a month with the big league club in Spring Training camp competing for the No. 5 spot in the starting rotation. Then he was sent to minor league camp, seemingly out of the race, leaving it to down to a trio of pitchers with Major League experience — Mike Bolsinger, Brandon Beachy and Carlos Frias — and Zach Lee, formerly the Dodgers’ No. 1 prospect.
What chance did Stripling have anyway? He tore his ulnar collateral ligament before the calendar flipped to March in 2014 Spring Training. Recovery from Tommy John surgery cost him half of the 2015 minor league season.
Now, facing reality, Stripling thought less about Los Angeles and more about the Dodgers’ Triple-A home in Oklahoma City.
“We had a new manager (in Dave Roberts), and Rick Honeycutt hadn’t seen me since the spring of ’14,” Stripling began. “We had a new front office that didn’t know much about me. Obviously they gave me (a 40-man) roster spot in November, so I knew they thought good things. But they hadn’t seen me throw, so I wanted to prove to them that I was healthy and ready to rock. I survived the first cut, which was pretty cool …”
Pretty cool. Meaning somewhat satisfying — not for the competitor in Stripling, but for the survivor in him who proved he was healthy enough to pitch and impress.
But then Bolsinger’s oblique acted up on him prior to a spring start. Tendinitis beached Beachy. Stripling was called back to big league camp to make a spot start — if those exist in Spring Training — and allowed five earned runs in five innings to the San Diego Padres.
After camp broke, Stripling was beckoned to Los Angeles. It was April 2, one day before Roberts planned on announcing the Opening Day roster.
“When I first landed, Doc said, ‘Hey, you can’t come to the field for an hour and a half,’” Stripling recalled. “I didn’t know what that meant. I guess they were telling Frias and maybe Zach Lee that ‘we’re gonna go with Stripling.’ So they didn’t want me there for any kind of awkwardness.
“I got there and (Roberts) said, ‘Strip, come to the office.’ There was Andrew Friedman, Rick Honeycutt and Doc in there (when I arrived). And they (said), ‘We’re gonna rock it with you as the fifth starter.’ I don’t even remember the rest of the meeting. It was probably a 20-minute meeting, and I can’t even tell you what we talked about after that.”
He called his mom and dad and Shelby to relay the news. He was going to make his Major League debut starting in San Francisco on April 8.
He had breakfast with his family and friends that morning in San Francisco. They were there to share in the experience of his first start. Then he made his way back to his hotel room while his fiancée with her family and his family left to check out the sights in San Francisco.
Stripling sat in his hotel room.
A nap would have helped, but he couldn’t sleep.
The team left for AT&T Park, he recalls, around 3 p.m.He started warming up in the bullpen before the game. But at AT&T Park the bullpens are down the lines in foul territory — so close that the fans can touch you. Bad news for a Dodger. Worse news for a Dodger rookie.
“I’m getting barked at,” Stripling said. “They’re hitting me with my number — 68. ‘They couldn’t even get you a good number.’ Just wearing me out about anything.”
The game itself is mostly a blur in Stripling’s mind. But a couple of things are still memorable.
After walking Hunter Pence to start the bottom of the seventh inning, Stripling threw a 3-2 changeup that induced a huge double play off the bat of Brandon Belt. And he remembers after walking Angel Pagan with one out in the eighth inning, Dave Roberts coming out to remove him.
Stripling was on the verge of becoming the first player in big league history to throw a no-hitter in his debut. But there was the Tommy John surgery, the first game of the year, and 100 pitches he had thrown.
“It was an extreme amount of emotions — from disappointment to relief to extreme happiness,” Stripling said.
He held his place in the rotation through eight starts — some brilliant, some rocky. But on May 23, Stripling was optioned to Oklahoma City. He was then sent to Arizona. The moves were made mostly to conserve innings.
But Arizona in June, Stripling said, was hellish. It wasn’t the work, but the climate.
“I wouldn’t want to go through it again,” he said.
But by going to Arizona, Stripling prolonged his season. His delivery has and always will be tall and over the top. But while in Arizona, he worked on getting his legs more involved. That change, he said, upped his stamina and allowed him to get deeper into games.
Since he made his return to a Major League mound on July 23, Stripling has appeared in 13 games and made six starts. On July 31, Bud Norris started and made 13 pitches, getting one out in the first inning. He left because of back muscle tightness. Stripling didn’t even have a chance to warm up in the bullpen. He was called in to warm up on the mound and then face Paul Goldschmidt with a runner on.
“That was kind of nerve-wracking,” Stripling said.
The rookie ended up giving the Dodgers 3 2/3 innings in a 14-3 win.
On September 23, Scott Kazmir left after one inning due to injury. Stripling picked up the pieces again, throwing three scoreless innings under the pressure of a division race in an eventual 5-2 win. The Dodgers clinched the National League West two days later.
“It’s been fun,” Stripling said of his role. “It’s kept things interesting, and kept me on my toes.”
Fun. If you know Stripling just a little bit, you know he’s having a ton of it. He genuinely looks like he enjoys interviews — a talent in its own right. He’s taken advantage of every opportunity he could get. He visited Vin Scully in his broadcast booth during the last homestand. He enjoys the challenge of competition. Heck, he didn’t even mind dressing up in a cheerleader outfit for the Dodgers’ annual rookie dress-up, even if it meant serving food and beverages to the veterans on a team flight to New York and walking through Manhattan in the outfit.
“We killed it,” he said.
He also laughs at another rookie initiation chore he had to take on twice — impromptu singing for the group on the team bus.
“It was ‘Ice Ice Baby’ and ‘3 A.M.’ by Matchbox Twenty,” Stripling said. “Showed my versatility.”
What has helped for Stripling is there has been so many fellow rookies on the team throughout the year. Because of that, he hasn’t been alone and thus, Stripling theorizes, has allowed so many young players to thrive on this team.
“It’s difficult as a rookie,” he said. “There’s a lot of things that you have to go through, as far as learning to keep your mouth shut and a mixture of trying to be yourself, but not being too comfortable because you are a rookie. So when you have a couple of guys here to go through that with, it helps. It creates camaraderie and overall brings the team together.”
Since Stripling returned from Arizona in July, his locker has been located a couple down from Clayton Kershaw. Stripling said, in a year, he has learned so much about the approach to the game just by watching the Dodger ace.
“Specifically what I’ve taken from him is the routine, the dedication to work every day he has,” said Stripling, who like Kershaw grew up in the Dallas area. “And the conviction behind every pitch. There will be times when you’re on the mound and thinking, ‘Maybe I want to throw a slider here and Yaz (Yasmani Grandal) puts down a curveball, and I throw that curveball and it may not be totally convicted. Whatever Kershaw throws he’s 100 percent convicted to it. That’s what makes him so good.
“That intensity he has for nine innings, you might see a closer come in and have that intensity for a three-out span. He can do it for 27 outs, and that’s hard to do. On start days he’s totally different than those other four days he’s not pitching. He just flips the switch into this competitor. That’s something you have to work toward. Not everyone has that. And that kind of conviction is something I’m trying to obtain because I think that’s what makes him as good as he is.”
Kershaw has returned a compliment to Stripling. Stripling recalls Kershaw telling him how it’s hard to tell when he’s pitching well or getting hit hard. Some of the truly great ones are so good at not showing emotion on the mound and moving on from pitch to pitch. It’s led Stripling to the next incredible stretch during his rookie season — the postseason.
With all he has been through — on the field and off it — he is prepared for baseball’s biggest stage.
“I don’t know what the role will be. I’ve done it all, so I’m prepared, and it won’t be totally new for me,” Stripling said. “Yeah, San Francisco was my debut, but it was a pretty hostile environment. I’ve pitched a lot of games in the division. I’ve pitched a lot of games on the road. I think I’ve taken the stage on some pretty big games. And it’s not the playoffs, but I think it prepares you, at least a decent amount. And I’ll be able to do my job — whatever it is.”
Stripling and Shelby are waiting for next November to get married. It’s been a pretty hectic year already. And it’s not over. At least Stripling hopes it’s far from over. He’s still got a full October to live out, a rookie season that still has one more thing to fulfill.