After seven surgeries, ex-Blue Jay Litsch taking up coaching challenge

Jesse Litsch played five seasons with the Toronto Blue Jays (Frank Gunn/CP)

TORONTO – Jesse Litsch underwent seven surgeries in the hopes of rescuing his pitching career. When that didn’t work out, he spent a year in China coaching middle- and high-school aged players. Next up is a stint as pitching coach for Team Philippines in a February World Baseball Classic qualifier.

Beyond that, the former Toronto Blue Jays right-hander is waiting to see where the game takes him.

“I want to coach,” says Litsch. “I feel like I’ve found my niche with older players … when I got the better kids in the bullpen, being able to teach them different pitches, how to control the game, throwing strikes, mechanics. It would be the same things in pro ball.”

First up is the Feb. 11-14 tournament in Sydney, Australia, one of four qualifiers for the 2017 World Baseball Classic. Pitted against the host Aussies, New Zealand and South Africa in competition for one berth to the big event, Litsch is realistic about the Philippines’ chances.

There won’t be much prep time for his squad, which will gather in Sydney on Feb. 6 and start practice the next day, but along with manager Tim Hulett, who also skips the single-A Spokane Indians in the Texas Rangers system, he’ll try to help his group buck the odds.

“We’ve got one former big-leaguer, Clay Rapada, he’s going to be our ace, I assume,” Litsch says of the 34-year-old left-hander who pitched last year for triple-A Sacramento in the San Francisco Giants’ system. “I’m going to throw everybody and see what we’ve got.

“I’m going to go out on a limb and say there’s not much expectation, but we all know if you have one good pitcher that throws the game of his life, you can win anything.”

Litsch, a 24th-round pick of the Blue Jays in 2004, knows all about exceeding expectations. He made his big-league debut at 22 on May 15, 2007, throwing 8.2 innings of one-run ball in a 2-1 win over the Baltimore Orioles, and won 13 games in 2008 before a series of arm injuries derailed his career.

He underwent Tommy John surgery in 2009, couldn’t regain past form in 2010 and ’11, had a platelet-rich plasma injection that went wrong in the spring of 2012, and proceeded to have seven different surgeries – including one in which he had bone and cartilage from a cadaver grafted into his shoulder – in an attempt to resume pitching.

“Put forth a good effort,” he says wryly. “Basically, I just rehabbed, rehabbed, rehabbed until I realized it wasn’t going to happen. I tried everything.”

Then came the coaching gig in China.

Hunting around the internet one day, he stumbled across a posting for a baseball instructor in China. Intrigued, he followed up and it turned out to be an opening at one of Major League Baseball’s three development centres in China.

Rick Dell, MLB’s director of game development in Asia, hired him for the job and Litsch was off to Changzhou, an hour train ride outside of Shanghai.

“It’s a small city of 3.8 million,” Litsch quips.

Once there, he had to quickly pick up enough Mandarin to get around and to instruct his pitchers on the field. At the academy, he worked with teenagers of differing talent levels who had left home to pursue baseball while concurrently completing their studies.

“Seeing the love that the kids have for baseball and the camaraderie they develop” was the best part of his experience, Litsch says. “Some kids like the Tibetans only see their family once a year because it’s a 38-hour train ride home. Seeing how they come together, how it becomes one big family – you hear a locker-room is a big family, I saw it there. But we as coaches became parents because we’re seeing them every day. We’re their guardians because if anything happens, they come to us.”

Among the players Litsch worked with is Xu Guiyuan, an outfielder/first baseman who in July became the first player from one of the Chinese development centres to sign a big-league deal, agreeing to a deal with the Baltimore Orioles.

“I was the only one there with professional experience, let alone big-league experience, so it was always, ‘How was it? What do I do?’” recalls Litsch. “I gave him the lowdown on what to expect and what’s going to happen. He got invited to [fall] instructs and the Orioles like him, so he must have done something right.”

During his downtime in China, Litsch and his wife Andrea did some sightseeing, with trips to the Great Wall and Hong Kong among the highlights. Litsch had been to China in 2004 with an American junior college team, but returning at age 30 with a more mature outlook gave him a new appreciation for things.

“It was a culture shock at first but you roll with it,” he says.

Shortly after Litsch returned, Dell contacted him with the offer to help coach Team Philippines and he accepted, even though the qualifier clashes with his annual charity golf tournament in the Tampa Bay area. The seventh edition of his event will go on with Litsch in Australia.

“I couldn’t really turn down the opportunity,” he says.

Notes: There are three other World Baseball Classic qualifiers: March 17-20 in Mexicali featuring Mexico, the Czech Republic, Germany and Nicaragua; March 17-20 in Panama City featuring Colombia, France, Panama and Spain; and Sept. 22-25 in Brooklyn featuring Brazil, Great Britain, Israel and Pakistan.