Blue Jays pitcher Chris Rowley set to join exclusive club

Chris Rowley, pictured above in an NCAA game for Army. (Steve Helber/AP)

TORONTO – On the eve of his MLB debut, Chris Rowley was asked what it meant to reach the big-leagues after serving in the United States Army. Immediately, the 26-year-old right-hander acknowledged that he hadn’t quite come to terms with what he was about to accomplish.

“It’s something that I’m not sure I really understand the magnitude of,” he said on the field at Rogers Centre Friday. “I’m not sure I ever will. It’s something I’m trying to digest a little bit right now.”

Rowley made his pro debut more than four years ago, but he interrupted his playing career from 2014-15 for a two-year military assignment. When he takes the mound Saturday, he’ll make some history, becoming the first West Point graduate to pitch at the MLB level.

There’s precedent for players serving in the military dating back to the likes of Bob Feller, Ted Williams and Willie Mays. More recently right-handed pitcher Mitch Harris went to the United States Naval Academy before pitching for the 2015 Cardinals.

“I think to say it’s an honour is an understatement,” said Rowley, formerly a non-drafted free agent. “That’s really the only thing I can say.”

In time, he’ll have the chance to make sense of it all. But as Rowley pointed out Friday, he can’t get too distracted when a matchup against the Pirates awaits.

“I have a job to do,” he said. “I have to go out and do that. It’s something that hopefully I will appreciate down the road.”

Rowley has already bounced between a variety of roles in 2017. He began the year pitching out of the bullpen at double-A New Hampshire before moving to the Fisher Cats’ rotation on May 20. A promotion to triple-A followed, and Rowley briefly returned to the bullpen with the Bisons, but by early July he was starting in Buffalo.

He pitched effectively in seven starts at triple-A, posting a 2.53 ERA in 42.2 innings with eight walks compared to 30 strikeouts. Though he doesn’t have overpowering stuff, Rowley uses four pitches: a sinker, slider, cutter and change-up.

“I like to mix,” Rowley said. “I’m not somebody who’s really going to blow people away. I don’t throw very hard. I design my game after Greg Maddux, who I think is one of the greatest pitchers of all time.”

When Rowley takes the mound Saturday, he’ll become the 12th pitcher to start a game for the 2017 Blue Jays. With Aaron Sanchez still sidelined and Joe Biagini building his stamina back at triple-A, there’s an opportunity in the rotation either for Rowley or Nick Tepesch.

Reaching the big-leagues represents a lasting accomplishment for any player—especially someone who spent two seasons serving—but Rowley hopes to earn an extended stay in Toronto, a city he had never visited until Friday.

“This is what we play for,” Rowley said. “To some extent, every person when they get called up, it’s a tryout. I think throughout your career, every outing’s a tryout. Is it a little bit magnified because it’s in the big-leagues? Absolutely, but mentally, ideally, I’d like to have the same mindset.”

On the surface, Rowley’s two careers are extremely different, but he does see certain commonalities between his time in the U.S. Army and his new role as a big-league pitcher.

“There’s a huge sense of nationalism that goes into both of the professions I’ve been in,” he said. “The United States Army and now playing for the only major-league baseball team in Canada.”

On Saturday he can expect plenty of fans on both sides of the border.