TORONTO – Dustin McGowan badly wants to succeed in what's likely his last chance to be a regular big league starting pitcher. He badly wants to erase the doubts about the health of his three times surgically-repaired right shoulder. He wants, once and for all, to eliminate the too-good-to-be-true cloud that hovers over his unlikely story.
After yet another all-too-brief outing, four innings plus three batters in Wednesday night's 10-8 loss to the Orioles, McGowan admitted that he's wearing out sooner than he'd like.
"Maybe a little bit," said McGowan when asked if he feels fatigued. "I do seem at 60 pitches, I kind of seem to be falling backwards a little bit, I guess you could say. But I feel good, my arm feels great, it's just sometimes it seems like the ball is not coming out quite right after 60, 65 pitches."
There's some positive in there with that negative. His arm, he insists, is healthy. He's pleased with how he feels when he's pitching. He's encouraged with his bounce back in the days after an outing. The problem, it seems, relates to a lack of stamina.
"The body just feels like it runs out of steam a little bit," said McGowan. "I shouldn't be feeling that, I should be at the point where I can go 90-100, especially the way my arm feels. It feels great."
Pressed further, McGowan didn't deny he's had thoughts about giving up his starter's spot and returning to the bullpen.
"You think about that, but right now I'm planning on being a starter and I've got to get past that hurdle sometime," he said.
His unlikely return to the rotation aside, it's important to put McGowan's issues in context. While he'd openly mused about taking one more shot at being a starter as far back as last September, and general manager Alex Anthopoulos was supportive of McGowan's winter efforts to stretch out, there wasn't a realistic expectation he'd be leaving the bullpen.
McGowan found a home there last season, posting a 2.45 ERA in 25 appearances and showing the stuff of a late-inning, high leverage, shut down reliever.
Then this year, toward the end of spring training, the Blue Jays fell just short in the pursuit of free agent right-hander Ervin Santana. There was a spot to fill behind R.A. Dickey, Drew Hutchison, Mark Buehrle and Brandon Morrow.
J.A. Happ dealt with back inflammation and pancaked with four awful Grapefruit League starts, resulting in a season-starting stint on the disabled list. Marcus Stroman was inconsistent and started the year with the Triple-A Buffalo Bisons. Aaron Sanchez, whose repertoire has Blue Jays personnel frothing, is working at Double-A New Hampshire and his innings are being monitored early in the season.
Esmil Rogers and Todd Redmond are best suited for long relief, which left McGowan as the best option. This despite the fact he suffered through a bout with a nasty stomach virus in early March, which docked about a week off his spring training schedule and pushed back efforts to get him multiple-inning appearances.
"It could be," said McGowan of whether his shorter than expected spring has caught up with him. "We sped it up a lot, usually you wouldn't increase that much that fast, but we had to and we did it. I've just got to find a way. There's a way, I've just got to get it past that hurdle."
What's still unclear is how long the Blue Jays are willing to give him. Stroman is off to a fine start with the Bisons, posting a 2.18 ERA, 1.355 WHIP and 26 strikeouts against six walks in three starts. His time is coming. So is Sanchez's, eventually.
Could it be sooner rather than later?
A Reliever's Approach
The Blue Jays entered Wednesday's action a Top-10 team in relief innings pitched. Relievers have hurled 67 2/3 innings so far this season, getting on average about 10 outs per game.
The bullpen is its own world, made up of pitchers who take different approaches to getting ready and staying fresh in case they're called on to appear in games on consecutive days.
Take Brett Cecil, a closer during his sophomore year at the University of Maryland in 2006. By the time he debuted in the big leagues in 2009, he was a starter. Cecil won a career-high 15 games in 2010, then had a mysterious drop in velocity on his fastball, struggled, and has since revived his career as a left-handed relief specialist.
"It's just kind of an everyday thing about how I feel," said Cecil of a day's preparation. "Whether I'm off that day, whether I'm going to throw that day; it just all depends on the night before, the two nights before, what I've done. If I need to stretch, I stretch. If I need to lift, I go lift."
Cecil is being careful early in the season after experiencing elbow pain late last year. He made a career-high 60 appearances before being shut down in mid-September. The games he could handle but as a former starter, Cecil was learning how to prepare for relief work. He's got a better handle on the demands this season.
"I wasn't sure how to police myself being a reliever so the days that I felt like throwing a flat ground, I would throw a flat ground," said Cecil. "Did I really need it? No."
Cecil believes it's easier on the arm to be a starter. You pitch every fifth day, working through a rest, treatment, throwing regimen in-between starts. In relief, you could pitch on back-to-back days and then sit for a number of games. There are periods of consistent work, every other day. It's unpredictable.
If a reliever has a two-pitch outing, like Cecil did on Friday night in Cleveland, it counts as a day's work so when he throws again on Saturday, as he did against the Indians, he's not available for Sunday.
"That's one of those things that people don't see," said Cecil. "We as bullpen guys don't get a chance to gradually warm up. It's, you've got to get on the mound and throw and you've got to get hot in a very short amount of time. It puts a lot of stress on the arm."
Closer Sergio Santos didn't appear in Tuesday night's win over the Orioles but with the game tied 3-3 in the bottom of the eighth, he was warming up to pitch the ninth.
It's not an appearance in Santos' stats line but it is a day of work.
"I had two days off plus an off day so it was technically three days off," said Santos. "It was fine for me to get off the mound and I threw maybe eight to 10 pitches. Just something to where I was sharp enough that if the inning were to end, I'd be able to go out and do my job and if it didn't, then it was just a day of a little bit more than a flat ground."
Santos is less concerned about a day like Tuesday in April but come July and August, the dog days of summer, relievers become more concerned with "saving their bullets." That is, throw when needed and to stay ready; just don't throw any more than what's required.
Bullpen coach Bob Stanley charts pitches thrown and keeps track of each reliever's throwing schedule.
Guys have different warmup routines. Santos likes eight to 12 pitches off the mound before entering a game. Cecil likes 15 to 20, throwing the final five at maximum capacity. If he's rushed, he'll factor in the eight pitches he gets on the game mound.
"Some guys warm up with an intensity that matches almost the game and can be harder," said Santos. "Some guys take it a little lighter when they're warming up."