McGowan calling on the baseball Gods

Dustin McGowan.(AP/Kathy Willens)

This column originally appeared in the March 24, 2014 issue of Sportsnet magazine.

We all know now, thanks to the Toronto Blue Jays, what it is like to endure a season in which pretty much everything goes wrong.

There have been more than one of those, it might be argued, over the past playoff-free two decades and counting, though even in that depressing context the 2013 campaign stands out as particularly star-crossed. Sky-high expectations heading in contributed to the feeling that by the end, it had been one long, cruel joke.

Anybody else going to get hurt or lose their nerve? Any more arms going to explode? Any more players going to forget how to play defence or run the bases? Any more catchers who can’t catch… or hit?

Now, with the fan pendulum having swung all the way into blind pessimism, there is much more dread than hope as opening day approaches. But even the rationally optimistic understand that for the Jays to contend in 2014, this must be the year in which a whole bunch of stuff goes right.

So why not dream big?

As spring training draws to a close, the Jays’ rotation looks like this: R.A. Dickey, Mark Buehrle, Brandon Morrow and TBA x 2, though it appears Drew Hutchison has a lock on the fourth spot.

The Blue Jays entered the spring with a whole bunch of candidates for the fourth and fifth slots, some young and fresh-faced, some of the veteran, journeyman mould—and one guy who is neither of the above.

Dustin McGowan will turn 32 this month, which for most professional ballplayers would put them squarely in mid-career. But because of all that has befallen him since he was drafted 33rd overall by the Jays way back in 2000, it feels like his has never really gotten started.

He made his big-league debut in 2005—after Tommy John surgery—and right from the start there were flickering moments of promise: the near no-hitter in 2007; the hints that the Jays were on the verge of developing a big, strong, hard-throwing front-of-the-rotation starter.

Then came the plagues: knee surgery, two shoulder surgeries, three full years missed. His heroic return in September 2011—which earned a generous contract extension—was followed by a 2012 completely lost to plantar fasciitis, and then came last year’s tentative but hopeful return, an inning at a time, in the bullpen.

And now, one last shot at the moon. "I talked to Alex [Anthopoulos] and told him starting was something I was interested in," McGowan says. "He said if I was, I had to be all in—have no regrets if something was to happen. I’m at the point now where I can do that."

It’s easy enough to understand the temptation. If McGowan could pitch the way he pitched last year, but go five or six innings every five days, he would seriously better the Jays’ starting situation.

It is even easier to understand the fear.

"It’s a gamble," manager John Gibbons acknowledges, "because he’s had numerous problems. We’re gambling because we need something for this team. We need to get better. But it’s happened so many times. You don’t know when the last one is going to be."

The last injury. The last game. The last pitch. That’s what’s hanging in the air every time McGowan takes the mound, and he knows it better than anyone.

Toronto has taken it slow stretching him out this spring. He is on a different timetable than the rest of the potential starters. McGowan has also continued with the weighted ball program that Steve Delabar introduced to the Blue Jays, and that has been a roaring success.

There’s always the possibility of backing off, of deciding that it’s not worth it, of heading back to the bullpen for what is the final year of his contract—though for the Jays, that’s a crowded place right now.

Still, this doesn’t feel like just a straightforward baseball decision, for the club, or for the pitcher. There’s another calculation involved. "That’s always been his dream—to be a starting pitcher," Gibbons says. "We’re not doing it just because of that. But that’s how he identifies himself."

And if not now, when? "After finally being healthy for a whole year I thought this is the chance to go back and try," McGowan says. "This is what I’ve done my whole life and it’s what I love to do."

There will be breath-holding with every pitch. He’ll be the first to know if something’s gone wrong, because that feeling has become all too familiar.

But the baseball gods owe McGowan one. Maybe they owe this team one as well.

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