What follows today is no mere game recap. It is not a simple news recap either. No, this is a story of perseverance, an allegory about one man’s journey to overcome the hurdles laid in front of him and return to the game he loves.
This is the story of Dustin McGowan, and like any good story, it starts at the ending.
On Friday night, Dustin McGowan took the mound for his second start of 2014 against the Baltimore Orioles, fresh off a humbling return to the rotation against the New York Yankees. That short outing (2.2 IP, 8 hits, 4 earned runs) loomed in the back of his mind, as did the thought that J.A. Happ was lurking to return in the minors and that he needed to show a little something special in order to stay in the rotation after this start.
A little something is exactly what Dustin McGowan showed on the mound, as he pitched masterfully, dodging bullets when needed and inducing weak contact throughout the Orioles line-up. You knew something special was in the air when well hit balls died into outfielders’ gloves and when the Baltimore third base coach made an ill-advised call to hold a runner. McGowan pushed his way through 6 innings of 5-hit ball, hit two batters, walked another, and struck out just 2 on the night on the way to the win.
His first victory since June 22, 2008. His first victory since June 22, 2008 at either the Major League or Minor League levels. a win nearly six-years in the making. It was a win that wasn’t lost on anyone tonight, as it was truly a special occurance, both for Dustin McGowan and his Toronto Blue Jays teammates alike.
“It’s kind of a sentimental night, you know, one of those deals,” said manager John Gibbons. “He’s come a long way and he answered the bell. He had a rough one, his first one, and he bounced back tonight against a good-hitting ballclub. Yeah, it’s very rewarding for not only him but for everybody that knows him.” (h/t Dan Ginsburg, Associated Press)
Just how far has Dustin McGowan come to return to the winner’s circle? His injury history is fairly well documented and begins just 3 starts after that last victory.
– On July 8, 2008, McGowan left his start after four innings of work with discomfort in his right shoulder. The injury turned out to be a frayed labrum and required season-ending surgery.
– While rehabbing from shoulder surgery in 2009, McGowan was forced to undergo articular cartilage surgery on his knee, setting him back another six weeks and assuring McGowan that he would not appear in a game at any level in 2009.
– 2010 was once again a lost year for McGowan. Further shoulder discomfort kept him from pitching at any level in 2010, and he was forced to have a second shoulder procedure, this time a rotator cuff procedure that cost McGowan another 4-6 months.
– 2011 was finally a solid rehab year. McGowan would make 12 starts in the minors before getting his long-awaited call back to the Blue Jays. He would make five appearances (4 starts) with Toronto in 2011, and while the results were not kind to him, the important thing was he was back on the mound and again in the conversation as a big piece of Toronto’s future.
– The future didn’t last long. Prior to signing a two-year extension, McGowan again experienced shoulder discomfort in spring training. After trying to rehab the injury through much of the season, and making no appearances at any level, McGowan would undergo arthroscopic shoulder surgery in August, once again ending his season before it began.
“Everybody’s heard it, everybody’s said it but I don’t think you can say it enough times what he’s been through and how many years of rehab and all this kind of stuff that he’s had to go through,” said Brett Cecil, who came on and through 1.2 innings of relief of McGowan. “Most guys would have hung it up after two or three years, but there’s no quitting in his blood and that’s pretty evident to everybody.” (h/t Shi Davidi, Sportsnet.CA)
However, the road back started a season ago, when the Blue Jays opted to start Dustin McGowan back in the bullpen. After starting the journey in the minor leagues, the then 31-year-old right-hander once again forced his way back to Toronto and the results were encouraging. Despite being handled with kid gloves, McGowan put together a season where he made 25 appearances out of the bullpen, amassing a 2.45 ERA and a 9.1 K/9 ratio over 25.2 innings of work. Still, that win eluded him and the desire to be a starting pitcher drove him.
McGowan came into spring with the goal of making the rotation. The Blue Jays, rightfully skeptical of what the workload could mean for his shoulder, opted to bring him along slowly, allowing McGowan to stretch himself out on his own. Still, Toronto seemed hesitant to name him a starter, a move that wasn’t made until the very last day of spring and likely may not have happened if not for the ineptitude of J.A. Happ, Todd Redmond, and others.
After one shaky start, McGowan put it together so here we are, having reached the light at the end of the tunnel, the lesson in all of this finally exposed.
“I got an opportunity to pitch again, and that’s all I could ask for. It’s something to build on. After the last one, I knew I needed to come out and have just a strong showing. This shows me I can still pitch, especially after the last start it was good for my confidence to go back out and know I can do this.” (H/T Jeff Seidel, MLB.com and Shi Davidi, Sportsnet.ca)
That brings us to the final piece of the story, where the best part is the ending, but the ending is truly a beginning. It is a special moment for Dustin McGowan, a reward for the hard work and the years of perseverance that it took for just a single notch in the win column. Most importantly, it is a moment of inspiration, something new to cling to on his continued journey toward wherever this path finally takes him. Where that goes, and how long it last, no one truly knows.
At the very least, taking the trip has been a reward to and of itself.