Jeff Blair

Dustin McGowan finding his way back as Jays' starter

DUNEDIN, Fla. — The Globe and Mail

Toronto Blue Jays starter Dustin McGowan warms up during the first inning of a spring training baseball game against the Houston Astros in Dunedin, Florida, March 10, 2012. REUTERS/Steve Nesius (STEVE NESIUS)

Think about this: Travis Snider has been in the Toronto Blue Jays system since 2006. Dustin McGowan has been in the system since 2000. Both have Major League service time. Yet Saturday was the first time Snider remembers playing behind McGowan in a game.

They’ve known each other through the good and bad times that come with being a can’t-miss prospect. Not everything is linear in baseball, after all. But until Snider saw McGowan pitch two innings in his first Grapefruit League outing – 24 pitches over two innings, their time together was limited to workouts or rehabilitation stints.

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The Jays radar gun had McGowan top out at 94 (miles per hour) and sit on 91.

“I learned to respect his character, but seeing him live – when he’s lighting up the radar gun – is special,” said Snider who homered off Zach Duke in a 5-2 win at Florida Auto Exchange Stadium.

A series of shoulder and knee injuries have plagued McGowan since the 2008 season. At one time considered to have stuff equal or better to Roy Halladay, McGowan made his first Major League appearance in three years last Sept. 6 against the Boston Red Sox and is the last of the candidates for the Blue Jays fifth starter’s spot to take the mound in a Grapefruit League game.

After a 25-pitch simulated game, manager John Farrell elected to skip McGowan’s turn in the rotation, but after Saturday’s effort Farrell said McGowan will likely get three innings in his next outing – an indication that McGowan is painfully close to being tossed in the hopper ready and treated like any other starter, although his next start might be in minor league camp just to keep everybody on track.

McGowan, who will turn 29 years of age on March 24, smiled when he was asked if he now felt like just another guy ready to work every fifth day. “For the first time in a long time, I do,” he said.

Indeed, McGowan sounded like any other starting pitcher after giving up a single to Astros first baseman Chris Johnson while striking out one and walking none, fretting about his curveball – “I threw a couple, and after a couple thought ‘better not do it again,’” he said – and down-playing the numbers registering on the radar gun. That is good. Very good.

… take speed off pitch.

“It felt good coming out, and as long as it feels good coming out, velocity’s just a number,” McGowan said. “Once you get to the big leagues, it doesn’t matter how hard you throw, because 105 and straight? They’ll hit it.”

It is movement and location that gets Major League hitters out, McGowan said. “Velocity … it helps you get away with some things,” he added.

Snider is locked in his own battle this spring: trying to wrest left field away from Eric Thames. He looks at McGowan, and calls him “inspirational.” So, too, does catcher J.P. Arencibia, who figured McGowan was good to go during their warm-up session in the bullpen. “He was warming up in the 90s,” said Arencibia. “You could feel how hard the pitches were. The ball was really getting in on me.”

The Blue Jays brain trust practically ran out of there to avoid raising expectations. Manager John Farrell was mostly pleased at the lack of drama, noting that McGowan had thrown the way he’s thrown all camp. “He didn’t speed up when he had a man on base,” Farrell added – a touchstone of sorts for a pitcher who is trying to convince people he’s back.

So it was all blue skies and sunshine for McGowan. Sunday is the next step; Sunday is when everybody will see whether there is soreness beyond the usual soreness, but McGowan certainly didn’t seem expecting anything but the best. What will tomorrow bring, he was asked? “Tomorrow … we’ll see tomorrow,” he responded. Like McGowan, the rest of us will sleep well. This was a good day. A very good day.

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