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Marcum tapped for Jays' Opening Day

Marcum tapped for Jays' Opening Day

DUNEDIN, Fla. -- Shaun Marcum wants to be a leader, and the Blue Jays are giving him the chance. On Monday, the organization handed Marcum the honor of serving as the club's Opening Day stater, a role that had been reserved for ace Roy Halladay for the better part of the past decade.

After sitting down in a small interview room at Dunedin Stadium, Marcum leaned back in his chair and fielded questions about his responsibilities as Toronto's No. 1 starter. It did not take long for Halladay's name to come up, but Marcum understood that was going to be an inevitable part of his first sit-down as the team's staff leader.

The reality is that Halladay is gone -- traded to the Phillies over the winter -- and Marcum and the rest of the Blue Jays' pitchers are trying to form their own identity as the organization enters this new era. While Marcum appreciates all that Halladay did for Toronto, and the lessons learned from watching Doc work on and off the field, the club feels it is time to move on.

"We've turned that page," Marcum said. "I know I have, and I think a lot of the other guys have turned the page, pretty much. When everybody showed up to Florida, I think for everybody, it was just put Doc in the past. Even though we learned a lot from him, and we wish him the best of luck where he's at, we have to turn the page for ourselves and this organization."

That begins with Opening Day on April 5 in Texas at Rangers Ballpark, where Marcum will take the mound for the Blue Jays in an outing against the Rangers. In each of the past seven years, Halladay earned the honor of starting the first game of the season for Toronto, establishing a franchise record for consecutive Opening Day starts.

The last starter other than Halladay to take the mound for the Blue Jays on Opening Day was Chris Carpenter in 2002. Over the years, a few of the other pitchers to receive the honor for the Blue Jays include Roger Clemens, Pat Hentgen, David Wells, David Cone, Jack Morris, Dave Stieb and Jimmy Key. Marcum is now part of that exclusive group.

It was not an easy road to Opening Day for Marcum, though.

Two years ago, Marcum stormed out of the gates and emerged as one of the American League's top young pitchers with a 2.43 ERA over his first 14 starts for the Blue Jays. As the 2008 season dragged on, though, Marcum's throwing arm wore down, ultimately leading to Tommy John surgery on his right elbow at the end of the year.

The injury cost Marcum the entire 2009 season.

"You've got to be mentally tough to go through a major surgery like that," Marcum said. "It was something I had to learn from and I had to be mentally strong through it, because a lot of guys can break down and just kind of get frustrated and give up on it. That's something that I didn't want to do."

After 17 months of grueling rehabilitation, the 28-year-old Marcum arrived to Spring Training this year feeling good about his progress. The Jays did not restrict his throwing program and Marcum got to work on earning a spot in the rotation. As Toronto moved deeper into training camp, pitching coach Bruce Walton said Marcum began to look more and more like the pitcher he was before the operation.

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As Marcum continued to pitch -- in bullpen sessions, during batting practice and finally in games -- it became clear to the Jays that he should be the Opening Day starter. That is no small feat, either. Since 2000, only two other pitchers (Carl Pavano, '07; Scott Erickson, '02) have started on Opening Day after being sidelined for the entirety of the previous season.

"He came off of it so well," Walton said. "We watched him all Spring Training. The first thing we watched for was to see how the ball was coming out. That passed the test. The ball was coming out nice. All his breaking pitches had nice sharpness to them. Then, we just kind of evaluated his command and his command has been unbelievable.

"It's like he hasn't missed a step. With those two things working for him, the decision was pretty easy."

There was more to the decision that Marcum's results on the mound, though.

With Halladay out of the picture, the Blue Jays are working with a relatively young and inexperienced starting rotation. Marcum has posted a 3.85 ERA over 64 career starts in the big leagues with Toronto. The other four projected starters -- Ricky Romero, Brandon Morrow, Marc Rzepczynski and Brian Tallet -- have combined for just 86 career Major League starts.

Marcum's track record gave him an edge over the others.

"He does have the most experience of pitching Major League games in that rotation," Walton said. "He battled his way here, and then he was one of our best starters for two years behind A.J. [Burnett] and Doc [in 2007-08]. So he's got a feel for the division and he's got a feel for the league."

Beyond that?

"One of his best traits is the way he helps the young players," Walton said.

For Marcum, that is an important aspect of sliding into the rotation's No. 1 spot.

"You've got to be there for your teammates non-stop," Marcum said. "You've got to talk to the young guys, help them out and that's one thing I've talked with the other guys about already. I'm just trying to take a leadership role a little bit, help out with [Walton] and Aaron [Hill] and Vernon [Wells] and all the other guys and just try to communicate the best we can with each other and just have fun this year."

Blue Jays manager Cito Gaston has noticed Marcum's efforts to assert himself as a leader in the clubhouse.

"He's done that," Gaston said. "He's turned a corner with that and he wants to be a big part of that. Certainly, you remind guys when they're going to lead, not only do you lead with your mouth, but you lead by example. We expect him to do that and I think he's willing to do it. He wants to do it."

Marcum will also be asked to square off against the best pitchers in the game this year. That could be intimidating for any young pitcher -- let alone one faced with lining up with the aces in the AL East throughout the season. Marcum said he is looking forward to the challenge.

"There in '08 when I got off to such a good start," Marcum said, "it seemed like I was facing a lot of the No. 1's. I was facing Cliff Lee and Felix Hernandez and a lot of those guys, and it seemed like I pitched better against those guys than the other guys. I don't know what it was, if I felt like I had to bear down a little bit more. ... I'd like to go out there and face the best every time."

There is that "bulldog" mentality that Marcum often says he tries to maintain. He wants to be a leader in the clubhouse and on the field, and he wants to show the Blue Jays that he is not afraid to take the mound in pressure-filled situations. That's when Marcum wants the ball. Listening to Marcum speak, it sounds like Toronto's previous No. 1 starter may taught him a few things.

Before Halladay left, he made sure Gaston knew what he had in Marcum, too.

"Doc Halladay told me, 'Hey, Cito. You're going to really enjoy watching this kid pitch,'" Gaston said.

Now, Gaston and the Jays will get to see what Marcum can do on Opening Day.

Needless to say, a lot has changed in one year.

"At this point last year," Marcum said, "I was looking forward to getting back and pitching with Doc. But he's gone, so we've got to move on."

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

{"content":["spring_training" ] }
{"content":["spring_training" ] }