Twenty-one days ago, when Roy Halladay last threw a pitch not only in anger but in pain, he left behind a snapshot of a Blue Jays team in disarray, eight games under .500.
The following day when he arrived at work with his gut on fire from an appendix about to burst, it didn't take a big imagination to think that with Halladay, their best pitcher, gone for a month or more, the Jays' death spiral was only going to accelerate.
Tonight, Halladay returns to the mound, well ahead of schedule, rejoining a pitching staff that not only didn't wilt in his absence, but got better. On the day he went under the knife, the Jays had a team ERA of 4.96. In the intervening 17 games, not including last night, it was 3.12.
Just about the only dissension we can see on the horizon for the Jays pitching staff is who will get the honour of drilling Alex Rodriguez in the ribs next time the Jays and Yankees meet, after his act in the ninth inning, calling "mine" as Jays newbie Howie Clark waited to collect a pop fly that would have been the third out. Clark leapt out of the way, believing it was teammate John McDonald who had called him off and the ball dropped in.
A-Fraud's verbal interference is not technically illegal, just bush. Jays manager John Gibbons suggested that kind of cheap trick is unworthy of the Yankees and he may have something there. In the immediate aftermath of the play, the entire Jays bench was ready to bolt to support Clark and McDonald. The Yankees? Not so much. Nobody even moved, probably out of embarrassment. Or indifference for the well-being of their low-rent teammate.
But we digress. While Halladay was recuperating, bullpen roles were refined and defined and a pecking order emerged from closer Jeremy Accardo on out.
Until Accardo settled in as the de facto closer, the team had still been reeling from the loss of B.J. Ryan, who had been as close to a sure thing as anyone in 2006. In tandem with Accardo, Casey Janssen took over the setup role. From Halladay's shadow, A.J. Burnett emerged as the interim No. 1 in the rotation and he has pitched like a No. 1. Behind him, Shaun Marcum and now Dustin McGowan replaced Victor Zambrano and Tomo Ohka and then Jesse Litsch gave the entire staff a jolt of electricity with his amazing debut in Halladay's rotation spot, five days after Doc went on the DL.
Even though Litsch never did pitch as well again as he did in that near-complete game 2-1 win over Baltimore and will probably be heading back to double-A today, he has established himself as a bulldog in the minds and hearts of the staff and players and will most likely be back before this season is over.
Understand also that this turnaround was accomplished while the offence remained largely comatose, as it has been most of the season. There are recent signs that the slugging machine Gibbons hoped would overcome any flaws on the pitching staff is finally coming alive, but the truth is, the pitching staff has been carrying the team.
There is more good news in the pitching pipeline, as well.
Brandon League, whose mysterious overdeveloped lat muscle stole eight or nine miles off his fastball when he arrived at spring training, finally has his act together. He's now pitching for Dunedin in class-A and his velocity has returned. On Tuesday, he struck out all three men he faced, reaching 95 m.p.h., on the radar gun.
The other important aspect of all these emerging arms, is their cost-efficiency. Accardo, Janssen, McGowan, League, and Marcum are all making under $1 million US. And don't forget Gus Chacin, Zambrano and Ohka, who are also not going to break the bank and will give Ricciardi some flexibility in any off-season moves.