Leif Strom held the key to keeping his arm in shape during a minor-league season that wasn’t—literally.
When the coronavirus pandemic upended 2020 spring training two weeks in, Strom returned to his hometown of Puyallup, Wash., near Tacoma, where his former high school coach owns a baseball practice facility.
He handed Strom a key, and with it unlimited access to square footage and a mound.
“Luckily, there were opportunities for me to get some throwing in even when it was raining in the Pacific Northwest,” Strom said Monday.
The 6-foot-6 right-hander gets another golden opportunity tonight, when he’ll become the first pitcher to start a game in a Fredericksburg Nationals uniform. Strom will take the mound at 6:30 p.m. as the FredNats visit the Lynchburg Hillcats to kick off the season with a six-game road trip.
Fredericksburg’s home opener is set for May 11.
“He’s the probably the most experienced guy on our staff,” FredNats manager Mario Lisson said of Strom, who appeared in nine games in 2019 with the rookie-league Gulf Coast Nationals, short-season Auburn (N.Y.) Doubledays and Class-A Hagerstown Suns. In a combined 26.2 innings of work, Strom struck out 27 while posting an 8.44 ERA.
“I just think I learned to be confident in my pitches and confident in my ability,” Strom said. “Going out there and competing every day is the biggest part of it.”
Strom was the first player mentioned by Washington Nationals director of player personnel Mark Scialabba Monday when asked about intriguing prospects assigned to the FredNats’ roster. Strom’s fastball ranges from 94-97 mph, Scialabba said, and he enters his second season of pro ball fully healthy after undergoing Tommy John and Ulnar nerve transposition surgeries early in his career.
“He’s someone that’s had to deal with some adversity,” Scialabba said. “He’s starting to grow into his frame as a power pitcher.”
About that adversity. Strom was just three games into a junior college season at Pierce (Wash.) College when he learned he’d need Tommy John surgery. The University of Alabama swiftly pulled a scholarship offer, and Strom was prepared to walk on at the University of Washington when the Nationals selected him in the 21st round of the 2017 MLB draft.
“I decided just to go professional so I could do my rehab with the Nationals, who did an amazing job,” Strom said. “I was super blessed to work with them.”
Throughout Strom’s college career and his first two years with the Nationals, he weighed about 205 pounds. During lockdown, he connected with the same strength coach who’d worked previously with 2020 NL Cy Young winner Trevor Bauer. With few places to go except the weight room, he bulked up to nearly 240 pounds prior to reporting to 2021 spring training.
Strom hopes the added mass translates into durability for the FredNats’ unrelenting 120-game schedule.
“I really just focused on how I can make it through a full pro season, because it’s a lot different than a college season,” he said.
Since Strom’s velocity is already big-league caliber, he’s spent much of spring training honing his slider. Zoom sessions with Fredericksburg Nationals pitching coach Pat Rice have helped to develop it as fourth pitch along with his fastball, curve, and changeup.
“His fastball looks really good, and he looks more confident for sure,” Lisson said. “If he’s able to mix in the breaking ball and the change-up, I think he’s going to have a very good season.”
Joey LoMonaco: 540/368-5045