DETROIT — A year ago when the Toronto Blue Jays last visited Comerica Park they were roughed up over three frigid April afternoons in a series that exposed the first real fissures in a rotation that ultimately doomed the team to failure.
Brandon Morrow and Josh Johnson both got crushed early, Mark Buehrle couldn’t make it through five innings but at least the offence rallied past the Detroit Tigers in that one, and things got so bad slop-master Edgar Gonzalez was summoned from the minors and did some mop-up duty.
Ugly doesn’t even begin to describe it.
Back in Motown a season later, everything is totally different for the Blue Jays, who checked in atop the American League East thanks in large part to a much stronger starting staff, and watched Drew Hutchison shove it down the throats of the AL Central leaders in an eventual 5-3 victory.
Hutchison, pitching on seven days rest after being pushed back from Saturday, didn’t get the win, but matched Anibal Sanchez zero for zero through seven innings, and eventually the Blue Jays offence broke through against closer Joe Nathan in the ninth.
It’s another impressive win for both the Blue Jays and Hutchison, who outduelled Yu Darvish in a 2-0 win over the Texas Rangers back on May 16.
“Obviously I believe I’m a good pitcher and I’m capable of doing that every night,” said Hutchison. “That’s what I expect out of myself, to give this team the best chance to win. The (Tigers) are in the Central, we’re in the East, these are big games and it kind of shows what you’re made of.”
Added pitching coach Pete Walker: “He seems to be on a mission. Not only does he feel he belongs here, he feels he can excel here. It’s evident in games like this.”
There’s little chance the 2013 Blue Jays win this one.
Anthony Gose led off the ninth with a walk, stole second, took third on a Jose Reyes single and scored when Jose Bautista’s dribbler up the middle snuck under shortstop Andrew Romine’s hesitant glove. Pinch-hitter Kevin Pillar added a sacrifice fly later in the frame before Brett Lawrie broke things open with a three-run homer off Al Alburquerque.
Dustin McGowan picked up the win with a perfect eighth while Casey Janssen recorded the final out for his ninth save after Steve Delabar allowed a three-run homer to J.D. Martinez that made things close.
“It’s nice to have everyone contribute,” said Lawrie, the cliche actually fitting for the Blue Jays of late. “Drew pitched a hell of a game and kept us in it. That was the big thing for us.”
Hutchison did indeed do the heavy lifting in this one, bouncing back nicely after his velocity was down in his last outing May 26, when he allowed five runs in five innings on seven hits and four walks. That performance was so ragged he became the first starter since Phil Marchildon on April 19, 1948, to win a game despite allowing three homers and at least four walks with zero strikeouts.
The Blue Jays decided to rest him shortly after, using the shuffle as an opportunity to insert Marcus Stroman into the rotation in place of Liam Hendriks.
Hutchison responded by totally tying up a dominant lineup and struck out seven batters, including Miguel Cabrera twice.
“I feel like I had a good start because I executed quality pitches,” he responded concisely when asked if the time off helped.
The only Tigers threat came in the second when Victor Martinez and Don Kelly reached with one out before Hutchison recovered to get Austin Jackson and Alex Avila, starting a stretch of 17 of 18 batters retired.
“To be honest with you, with a little bit of a break he might have been a hair rusty early on,” said Walker. “He found his rhythm again, it seemed around the third inning, and started attacking the strike zone. …
“I thought he looked comfortable and the velocity that was there was a bonus. He stepped on it when he needed to step on it, I saw some 93s and 94s, but I think he pitched. Didn’t try to overthrow and had that fastball when he needed it.”
The same can’t be said of his last outing, when Hutchison was, in the words of manager John Gibbons, “just kind of, blah, he wasn’t popping the ball.”
The plan all along was to give Hutchison -- and while they were still in the rotation, Morrow and McGowan -- extra rest to try and keep them healthy and strong over six months.
The Blue Jays will hope the extra day of rest afforded to the rest of the rotation by Monday’s off-day benefits the rest of the rotation. R.A. Dickey starts against Rick Porcello on Wednesday with J.A. Happ facing Justin Verlander in Thursday’s finale.
“You come into a series like this against a dominant team like the Tigers have been and you win the first game, it’s really nice,” said Walker. “We’ve got two more and I’m sure R.A. is excited about (Wednesday).”
A series win against the Tigers, one of the leading contenders in the AL, won’t be the be-all, end-all for the Blue Jays, but given their sweep of the Oakland Athletics a week and a half ago and a run of 22 wins in their last 29 outings, it would certainly reflect well on how far they’ve come, and where they might end up.