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How Matt Strahm went from afterthought to Boston Red Sox’s bullpen Swiss Army knife, a look at the Fenway Park clubhouse & more | Chris Cotillo (MLB Notebook)

A reliever who was limited by injuries to just 27 ⅓ major league innings over the previous two seasons isn’t supposed to get $3 million in guaranteed money as a free agent. It just doesn’t happen.

Matt Strahm, then, is the exception. And it’s almost entirely thanks to what he calls the best bullpen session of his life.

To say Strahm, who logged just 6 ⅔ innings for the Padres in 2022 due to recurring knee issues, flew under the radar as a free agent would be putting it lightly. He was non-tendered by San Diego right before the MLB lockout and, due to his injury history, was nowhere close to the top of the list of available bullpen arms. The 30-year-old had made $2 million in 2021 and in no way looked to be in line for a raise in 2022. Then came what he calls the best bullpen of his life.

Shortly after the lockout ended, Strahm’s agents e-mailed teams to let them know that the left-hander planned to showcase his talents at a Phoenix facility. According to Strahm, 18 scouts from 16 different teams, including the Red Sox, showed up. In front of that audience, he demonstrated increased velocity, sharp secondary pitches and, most importantly, that his knee was healthy. Within 12 hours, Strahm said, his phone was ringing off the hook.

“I obviously wasn’t there for it in person but I saw plenty of video of that and also, video of him in the past in the big leagues,” said Red Sox pitching coach Dave Bush. “We liked his stuff and it was just a matter of making sure he was healthy and that the ball was coming out the right way.”

Suddenly, Strahm was the subject of a free agent bidding war that caused a few interested teams to bow out early as the asking price grew. Once a candidate for a minor league contract, Strahm had earned himself a major league roster spot, and eventually, a pretty significant guarantee. By the end, he found himself deciding between the Red Sox, Tigers, Royals and Brewers. He had always had affection for Boston and Fenway Park but wanted to know more about the organization and specifically, the training staff. That’s when he decided to start picking the brain of his former Padres teammate Garrett Richards, who spent 2021 with the Red Sox.

“I knew, coming off an injury, I needed a medical staff that was really attentive,” Strahm said. “Him and Mitch Moreland both preached how good the athletic trainers were here. That just made my decision that much easier.”

Another former Red Sox pitcher, lefty Drew Pomeranz, also played a role in Strahm’s decision because he had glowingly told Strahm about his time in Boston during their three years as teammates in San Diego. All of those factors pointed Strahm toward the Red Sox.

“I’m super grateful that as many teams showed interest as they did,” Strahm said. “I’m just thankful the Boston Red Sox believe in me and know they can keep me healthy.”

Strahm’s knees have been what have held him back throughout his career. In 2017, he underwent a patellar tendon repair on his left knee. Three years later, in Oct. 2020, he had a similar procedure on his right knee and then had to go back on the injured list with inflammation last August. Looking back, Strahm thinks he rushed back from his latest procedure. The lockout helped him slow things down and he entered 2022 feeling as good as he has in years.

“The training staff, just the few weeks I’ve been here, I’ve noticed tremendous changes and my knee is feeling better than it has ever felt,” Strahm said. “It’s a good spot for me.”

From afar, the Red Sox had identified Strahm as a talented pitcher who had been able to put everything together in stretches (like in 2018, when he had a 2.05 ERA and 69 strikeouts in 61 ⅓ innings) but had not yet reached his full potential. Strahm has flown under the radar, Bush believes, not only because of his health issues but also because relievers for west-coast teams tend to be lesser-known because they pitch long after most of the country has gone to bed. Even Red Sox manager Alex Cora, an avid baseball fan who watches as many games as he can, admitted he didn’t know much about Strahm before the Red Sox started pursuing him.

“As far as the analytics and the characteristics of his pitches, we had an idea,” Cora said. “Good stuff, of course, but I didn’t see too much from him. He has been hurt the last few years. We know about the multiple innings and they tried to start him (in San Diego in 2019). The breaking ball used to play a little bit more when he did that. He threw that bullpen in Arizona, I think it was, and everybody was excited. We talked to him right after that and since Day 1, it has been all out. He’s very intense. He trusts his stuff.”

Strahm impressed during spring training and has emerged as something of a Swiss Army knife for Cora in the early part of the regular season. He’s not the closer or even the setup man, but he’s working a high-leverage, fireman role in Boston’s bullpen. Four of his nine appearances have come in tie games and three more have come with Boston either trailing or winning by one run. So far, he has entered games in the fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth and 10th innings.

“Whenever A.C. gives me the ball, I’m gonna throw it until he takes it from me,” Strahm said. “I don’t care if it’s an 11-run deficit, an 11-run lead, a two-run lead, it doesn’t matter to me. Every time I’m on the mound, I’m going to compete my (expletive) off.”

The Red Sox are still trying to figure out exactly how to best line up their bullpen but when they do, it’s clear Strahm will play an important role. He hasn’t been used for more than four outs (or 19 pitches) yet, but he likely will be soon. The fact that he’s nothing like a traditional LOOGY — righties have a lower OPS (.693) than lefties (.727) against him throughout his career — gives the Red Sox confidence that he can pitch against anyone at any time.

“Part of modern day bullpens is understanding leverage situations differently,” Bush said. “It’s not always the ninth inning. It’s not always the eighth inning. A lot of times the leverage situations are earlier than previously thought. So guys like him, with the ability to go more than one inning if we need to, and the ability to get lefties and righties out, they make themselves available for a lot of different situations because we can use him in various parts of the lineup and in various parts of the game.”

The early returns on Strahm have been encouraging, though his 3.68 ERA is inflated by his performance Tuesday, when he gave up two earned runs and recorded just one out (in part due to Bobby Dalbec not squeezing his back-handed flip on a bunt attempt). Strahm’s 1.84 FIP is more indicative of how successful he has been so far. In addition to impressing Red Sox brass with what he’s done on the mound, he has demonstrated a high baseball IQ that has turned some heads.

“I’m glad that he’s here,” Cora said. “I think he fits right in with everything that goes here with the way the fans go about it. We got him at the end, kind of, and it has been great so far.”

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FENWAY FEATURE

The home clubhouse at Fenway Park is, to put it lightly, cramped. It’s unlike any other home clubhouse in baseball, and not in a charming way. It’s so small that, when rosters are expanded (like last week, when the Sox had some extra players during their COVID outbreak), temporary lockers are brought in and put in the middle of the room. September is a nightmare.

Alex Cora recently joked that when the Red Sox bring free agents in for visits, they show them the rest of Fenway — and give the entire pitch — before sneaking in the clubhouse tour at the end. Clearly, a lot of guys haven’t minded through the years. That’s probably because the visiting clubhouse is even worse.

Still, after two years in Zoomland, it’s great to be back in there. I don’t think fans really appreciate how important clubhouse access is when it comes to the types of stories reporters can bring you. Hopefully, we’ll never have to go without clubhouse access again.

One unique feature of the Sox’ clubhouse is that it’s accessible right from the concourse on the first base side. That’s not the case in every other ballpark I’ve been to, as the clubhouses are usually on a private, basement level below the stands. At Fenway, reporters have to walk through the exiting crowd to get down there postgame. That’s a blast on days when kids run on the field after the game!

Red Sox clubhouse

The home clubhouse at Fenway Park.

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3 UP, 3 DOWN

Through three weeks for the 8-12 Red Sox:

UP: SS Xander Bogaerts (hitting .462 in his last 7 games and looking like he’s worth way more than $90 million over 4 years)… RHP John Schreiber (made a case for a 40-man roster spot with two good performances in Toronto)… DH J.D. Martinez (banged up but still raking to the tune of a .308 average and three doubles in four games)

DOWN: RHP Tanner Houck (like it or not, it’s indisputable that his vaccination status caused the Red Sox to shuffle things around pitching-wise this week)… OF Jackie Bradley Jr. (1-for-21 in his last six games, now hitting .161 on the season)… Bobby Dalbec (3-for-25, 9 Ks in the last week and has the Triston Casas whispers getting louder)

Related reading: Triston Casas’ call to Boston Red Sox could be accelerated by struggles of Bobby Dalbec, Travis Shaw | Chris Cotillo

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STORIES YOU SHOULD READ

You should read…

* Our Chris Smith catching up with Connor Wong in his latest minor-league notebook.

* The Athletic’s Alec Lewis on Andrew Benintendi’s hot start and how training with old friends Mookie Betts and Brock Holt may have contributed to it.

* Boston Sports Journal’s Sean McAdam talking to Chaim Bloom about Boston’s slow start.

* WEEI’s Rob Bradford (while COVID-stricken, no less!) on how Holt is comfortable with whatever comes next for him, whether it’s on or off the field.

* Our Katie Morrison on how Connor Seabold’s great start with the WooSox has him in line to help the Red Sox later this year.

Related: Check out all of MassLive’s WooSox coverage here.

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PODCAST TIME!

On the latest episode of The Fenway Rundown podcast, Red Sox announcer Mike Monaco joins host Chris Cotillo to talk about his rise as a young star in broadcasting. The 28-year-old talks about the time he first got the call to do a game for NESN, his best memories of Jerry Remy, his career to this point and much more, including a great Coach K story.

Click here to listen to the full episode. You can subscribe to the show on Spotify and iTunes.

Related reading: How Boston Red Sox announcer Mike Monaco went from NESN intern nicknamed ‘Zack Greinke’ to play-by-play man in 10 years

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THIS WEEK IN BASEBALL

Five thoughts from around the league…

1. Looking up and seeing Martín Pérez with a perfect game in the seventh inning Thursday was quite the surprise. Then again, he did dominate the Astros as recently as last June.

2. Jon Jay, who announced his retirement, will have a job in baseball as soon as he wants it. Red Sox manager Alex Cora, a fellow University of Miami alum, stumped for Jay on Thursday and even said he’d support the Red Sox bringing him into the fold in some non-playing capacity.

3. The return of a healthy Ronald Acuña Jr., earlier than expected, is great for baseball. I don’t think people talk enough about how impressive it is that the Braves won it all without him last year. He represents everything that’s good about the game.

4. That highly anticipated Yankees letter turned out to be… absolutely nothing. It feels like the sign-stealing era in baseball is over (for now).

5. It’s hard to believe, but the Blue Jays and Red Sox played a two hour, 16-minute game Tuesday night. That’s the shortest nine-inning game for Boston since Aug. 8, 2019 against the Angels (also 2:16). The last time a nine-inning Red Sox game was over within two hours and 15 minutes was 2017.

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WHAT TO WATCH FOR THIS WEEK

Three things I’m looking forward to seeing in the upcoming days…

1. Shohei Ohtani pitching on Tuesday night at Fenway Park. It looks like that’s going to happen because the Angels use a six-man rotation. It was electric seeing him in Anaheim this year. Hopefully Fenway is packed to see a once-in-a-generation talent.

2. If the Red Sox make a surprising cut when rosters shrink from 28 players to 26 on Monday. Could Ryan Brasier’s spot be in jeopardy? He has options, so it’s possible.

3. The Red Sox hitting a home run. I mean, they have to, right?

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Related links:

How Boston Red Sox can keep both Tanner Houck, Garrett Whitlock in bullpen for next couple weeks before solving rotation question

Triston Casas’ call to Boston Red Sox could be accelerated by struggles of Bobby Dalbec, Travis Shaw | Chris Cotillo

Connor Wong, Boston Red Sox catching prospect: ‘When I was a pitcher, I liked throwing to a bigger target … the opposite of me’

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