One of the brightest spots of the Blue Jays’ 2011 season came September 5, when oft-injured right-hander Dustin McGowan made his triumphant return to a big league mound after taking himself out of a game over three years ago on July 8, 2008.
Few players have endured the kind of heartache that McGowan since that day, and few players understand the term “emotional rollercoaster” as good as McGowan does.
While it was certainly great to see him make it back to the Majors this past season, it’s easy to forget about the Georgia native’s very busy 2011, so here’s a look back.
Back in Spring Training, McGowan’s story took an interesting turn when it was announced that the Jays were going to groom him as a reliever going forward. Jays manager John Farrell had said it was the most sensible course of action based on the medical advice that the club had been given on McGowan’s shoulder.
Catching up with McGowan at the Jays’ minor league complex in Florida at the time over on The Good Point, he expressed to me his first comments on the decision.
“I’m fine with it, I mean right now I think it’s the easiest way to really monitor my pitches and throwing. It’s different when you’re starting and throwing 80 to 100 pitches, you never know how you’re going to react and come back. It’s a just a way that they can keep watch on me,” he said.
However, it was easy to tell that, despite understanding the Jays’ decision at the time, he wanted to return to the big leagues as a starter.
“Down the line, I hope to start again,” McGowan said. “It’s mostly all I’ve done in my life.”
He made significant strides regarding arm strength and velocity while throwing one inning at a time in extended spring training, though, and Jays GM Alex Anthopoulos found him pleasantly surprised.
“I didn’t expect to ever see him being considered a starter again, but he’s made such progress … it may not be the worst thing for him,” said Anthopoulos in an interview with Sportsnet’s Shi Davidi at the end of May. “It’s exciting. Starting may be better for him because you eliminate the ups and downs of the bullpen, the back-to-back days, it’s a scheduled, structured program where he gets that rest period over so many days.”
So, when extended spring training came to a close in June and the Jays having to make a decision on the 29-year-old, McGowan embarked on a rehab assignment with the Dunedin Blue Jays. There, got back into the routine of pitching every fifth day and starting real games off.
The pitching lines were often irrelevant, like in McGowan’s Florida State League debut when he allowed three runs in just two thirds of an inning. The important thing was that he was getting back into a routine, regularly getting the ball in his hand, and, above all else, staying healthy.
After managing a 2.87 ERA with 17 strikeouts in seven short starts with the D-Jays, McGowan got the call to move up to Double-A New Hampshire in August and hopefully extend his starts to four innings.
“It’s what I expected. There has been no pain, so that has been a plus. I seem to be recovering pretty well and about to build it up one more [inning],” McGowan told Blue Jays beat reporter Gregor Chisholm shortly after his final appearance in Dunedin, where he limited the opposition to just two hits in three scoreless frames.
In New Hampshire, McGowan fashioned a 2.75 ERA in 19.2 innings across five starts. He struck out 18 over that span and pitched deeper into games, setting the stage for his emotional return to a big league mound on September 5.
Coming out of the bullpen to a standing ovation at Rogers Centre, McGowan threw 74 pitches in four innings and 44 for strikes. He threw 44 fastballs that ranged from 89 to 96 mph, 15 sliders that ranged from 86 to 91 mph, 9 changeups that ranged from 85 to 89 mph, and only six curveballs that ranged from 81 to 84 mph. It was his only relief appearance of the season, as he started four games after that to close out the year.
McGowan showed glimpses of his previous self this past September–striking out eight Angels hitters in five innings while holding them to two earned runs on the 21st–and it will be interesting to see how he fares next season both health-wise and performance-wise.