FORT MYERS, Fla. — It seems like a long time since Jesse Litsch was the golden boy on the Blue Jays rotation.
Back in 2007 he was the little kid from nowhere, summoned from double-A, the kid with the red hair and big smile that would be the band-aid on a hurting rotation.
A lot has happened to the ‘kid’ since then, most of it bad.
Following a stellar 2008 season when he was 13-9 with a sparkling 3.58 ERA, Litsch appeared to be on his way up.
Then in 2009, he suffered a torn elbow ligament leading to Tommy John surgery. He made it back to the bigs in June of 2010 but hit a second speed bump when he underwent surgery in August for a torn labrum in his right hip.
While Litsch has mostly been on rehab the past two seasons, a trio of youngsters have come with a rush — Ricky Romero, Brandon Morrow and Brett Cecil — leaving Litsch more or less in the dust.
This spring Litsch, who tuned all of 26 on Wednesday, fully expects to show that he is capable of joining that young group that should also include rookie right-hander Kyle Drabek.
“I think the only reason those guys have gone by him is that he wasn’t pitching,” pitching coach Bruce Walton said Thursday. “He had Tommy John in 2009 and the next year (2010) he was just trying to get his feet back underneath him. But you get guys coming (in baseball), you have arms coming and he was just standing still and those guys moved past him.
“But the thing you can’t forget is that he’s still young and I think you’re going to see the real Jesse Litsch show up this spring and into the season.”
On Thursday, Litsch was making his third appearance and second start of the spring. Following an aces job the last time out against the Braves where he allowed one hit and struck out four in three scoreless innings, he was a little off the beam.
He gave up two runs in the first inning thanks to a poor throw to second by Edwin Encarnacion on what should have been a inning-ending double play, then had 1-2-3 innings in the second and third. In the fourth he issued a leadoff walk followed by a one-out double in his 32/3 inning outing.
But his health is no longer an issue, he’s lost weight, toned up, is feeling strong and fully expects to make the rotation.
“I’ve always been mentally strong so it’s just a matter of getting through it,” Litsch said. “I know that everything is going to come up on the upside. Mentally, I’m always strong, physically that’s where the problems came in. Two surgeries later and I’m back here at spring training, ready to go. I feel great and that’s awesome.”
Walton, for one, sees a much-improved Litsch this time around.
“Definitely he’s done a tremendous job in the off-season getting where he needs to be as far as physically and he’s throwing the ball really well and his arm is working really well,” Walton said. “He’s back to the old Jessie that we saw back in 2008 and 2009.
“The arm speed is what takes a while to get back after any type of surgery. Once we get the arm strength back, the command comes. The first thing you want to see is the arm strength.”
It’s not just how a pitcher bounces back physically that makes for a successful comeback. A pitcher also has to bounce back mentally and weather the early stages where the arm speed isn’t quite there, the control is off and a pounding or two occurs.
“It took a toll on Jesse last year,” Walton said. “At the time I don’t think he wanted to admit it but now when he looks back I think he knows he wasn’t where he wanted to be, was trying to pitch like the old Jesse but the old Jesse wasn’t back yet. That can be very frustrating. It grinds you mentally. So it was a struggle for him last year, especially coming back in the middle of June where everybody is pretty locked in and he’s just coming back.
“But this spring training, physically he’s healthy, he’s strong, the command’s back, the sharpness and the stuff is back.”
As far as the fans go, Litsch has been out of the picture so long he’s almost an afterthought.
“He’s been widely overlooked. The other kids are visible, we see them and when we don’t see you, we forget about you and that’s kind of how the game can go,” Walton said.
“Jesse’s been invisible for a couple of years but I believe he’s ready to become visible again.”
At least be part of the picture.