McGowan looking to fulfill potential

McGowan looking to fulfill potential

ST. PETERSBURG -- John Gibbons has an easy way of discussing just how special Blue Jays pitcher Dustin McGowan could become. The Toronto manager simply defers to comments made by those who have witnessed McGowan up close.

"I don't know how many times it happened last year," said Gibbons, sitting inside the visitors' dugout at Progress Energy Park, "but I guarantee you it happened five or six times. You'd take him out of the game, and the umpire would always walk over as I'm coming off the field and say, 'You know, this guy's got some kind of arm.'

"That doesn't happen very often. And it's not like it was just one guy who said it on one particular night, when this guy was really good. A handful of them said it throughout the year. That will tell you everything you need to know."

On Saturday afternoon, McGowan provided a two-inning glimpse into what those umpires were talking about. Inside Tampa Bay's spring ballpark, catcher Rod Barajas' glove popped upon absorbing McGowan's barrage of fastballs, sliders and changeups buzzing toward home plate.

The brief outing was McGowan's first appearance of Spring Training, ushering in what is shaping up to be a promising season for the right-hander. The potential that McGowan is finally flashing in the big leagues has been a long time coming for the pitcher, who made major strides during a breakout campaign a year ago.

McGowan -- selected 33rd overall by Toronto in the 2000 First-Year Player Draft -- was finally able to enjoy some level of stability last year. During each of the two previous seasons, the Jays shuttled the young pitcher back and forth between the rotation and bullpen. When he rejoined Toronto's starting staff last May, the Jays decided to leave him there for good.

"What really got him over the hump last year," Gibbons said, "is he came up and we said, 'Hey you know what? You're going out there every fifth day. No looking over your shoulder. Go out there and do your thing.' I think that probably benefited him the most, because he didn't have to live and die with every outing."

Spring Training
News and features:
Multimedia:
• Bastian on Jays' chances in '08  400K
• Ashby on Burnett's importance  400K
• Bastian on Rios, Ryan  400K
Spring Training info:
MLB.com coverage  |  Schedule  |  Ballpark  |  Tickets

Instead, McGowan, who turns 26 years old later this month, was able to learn how to harness his stellar arsenal of pitches. It took time -- just as McGowan's progression through the Minor Leagues took time -- but the pitcher was able to eventually let go of the doubts that had existed for years.

McGowan was finally able to trust in his ability.

The pitcher points to an outing against the Orioles on May 23 as the turning point in his 2007 season -- and perhaps his career. It was at that point that McGowan began to buy into the pitch-to-contact approach, worrying less about painting the corners of the strike zone and daring batters to swing.

"That was the game that I decided, 'You know what, I'm not going to nitpick around the corners,'" McGowan said. "'I'm going to go right after hitters.' I think that's when I learned to make them put it in play, and I found that I had more success and got deeper into games that way.

"That's where it changed for me. You can't be hardheaded your whole life."

Another turning point in McGowan's season, in which he went 12-10 with a 4.08 ERA over 27 starts, came in a start against the Red Sox at Fenway Park on July 14. In that outing, McGowan shook off signs from catcher Gregg Zaun, who wanted the pitcher to throw more curveballs.

McGowan didn't follow Zaun's lead and wound up surrendering six runs in five innings of a loss. That performance upped McGowan's season ERA to 5.05, and he made a decision to no longer hesitate to listen to his catcher or coaches. Over his final 14 starts, McGowan went 7-5 with a 3.29 ERA, limiting hitters to a .208 batting average over that span.

"Here's a guy where every team in baseball would take this guy in a heartbeat," Gibbons said, "and would probably give up a lot for him, too. You just watch him and when it clicks, you've got a special kid."

McGowan's potential made him a first-round pick out of Long County High School in Ludowici, Ga. It's that potential that also -- despite Tommy John elbow ligament replacement surgery on his right elbow in 2004 -- now has him slotted in as Toronto's No. 3 starter, following ace Roy Halladay and right-hander A.J. Burnett.

Many analysts believe McGowan could be an ace at some point in his career, and he's already garnering attention as one of baseball's top young arms this spring. On Saturday, without working his curve into the mix just yet, McGowan threw 26 pitches (19 for strikes) and allowed no runs on two hits.

McGowan certainly caught the eye of Rays manager Joe Maddon.

"He's Roy Halladay Jr.," Maddon said. "This guy is very good. He's going to be even better. He's very simple, just like Halladay, which I kind of like from a distance. If he stays healthy, he's going to be a very, very, very good pitcher for many years."

McGowan smiles when told of the many compliments he's receiving these days, but he said he tries to focus his attention elsewhere.

"I don't try to get caught up in it," McGowan said. "I just take it day-to-day here and worry about what I have to do now, and not worry about what everybody else thinks."

Jordan Bastian is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.