DUNEDIN, Fla. — Dustin McGowan has been down this road so many times he knows the twists and turns by heart.
It’s the comeback trail and it’s the route that McGowan once again finds himself plodding along.
McGowan hasn’t faced major league hitters in a regular season game since July 8 of 2008 and has had two operations on his shoulder — one in 2008 and another one in 2010 — but stoically refuses to throw in the towel.
It’s remarkable that he keeps soldiering on and does so without regret and any sense of self pity.
The Blue Jays and McGowan, encouraged by how his bullpen sessions have gone this spring, threw out a curve on Sunday when manager John Farrell reported that the right-hander, now 29, will be attempting to come back as a reliever and not a starter, the theory being that a starter’s role puts too much strain on his shoulder.
On Monday, McGowan took another step on that well-travelled road by throwing batting practice at the minor-league camp, marking the first time he has faced batters since being shut down last spring.
McGowan threw five pitches to five different hitters, baby steps if you will, in the long trek that he keeps hoping will deliver him back to the major leagues.
McGowan is okay with the decision to bring him back as a reliever, even though in his chest there still beats a heart of a starter.
“A few weeks ago, they said this is probably what we’re going to do and made it official the past couple of days,” he said. “I was fine, I just want to pitch. If all goes good and the arm stays healthy, down the line, I’d like to start again. But I’ve got to get through this first.”
Although it’s been nothing short of torture for McGowan, he’s never thought about packing it in and saying it just isn’t worth it, that he should move on with his life and leave his dream behind.
“It’s been worth it, they’re (his wife and child) the ones that kept me going the whole time,” he said. “I’ve really never thought: ‘I’m done. I quit.’ I can’t do that. I couldn’t live with myself if I did that.
“That’s not to say there’s been times I’ve thought to myself: ‘Is my arm going to come back? Am I going to pitch again?’ But those are two separate things. You’d have to take my uniform off my back before I’m done.”
This spring, McGowan is encouraged with how his shoulder is responding.
“I seem to be recovering a lot faster actually. Last year, I just didn’t recover. From one side (session) to the next it was pretty much: ‘Okay, I’m sore, let’s see if I can work through it.’
“Now I get a couple of days in between and it feels like the first day.”
His expectations, though still remarkably high, are more realistic now.
“I know not to overdo it the first few times out,” he said. “That was the problem the last couple of times. It was kind of in my mind: ‘Hey, I might have a chance to make the team if I show them I’m healthy.’ You start overdoing it and it hurts you more than helps you.”
He appreciates the faith the Jays have continually shown him, the organization perhaps being stung by the time they lacked faith in Chris Carpenter’s comeback hopes and gave up him only to see him make it back and win the National League Cy Young award with the St. Louis Cardinals.
“They’ve been nothing less than great to me,” he said. “Hopefully in their eyes they still see something, that I can help them out and that means a lot, it gives me confidence. They still see something so I know it’s still there and I can’t thank them enough.”
Does he picture the moment when he’s back on a major-league mound in a real game?
“Yeah, actually I pictured this moment,” he said of Monday’s lowly bullpen session. “Just looking at somebody standing in there is so much different than throwing a side. It’s the first time anybody has stepped in there (since the surgery). I had butterflies today for the first time in so long. It’s a different feeling but a good feeling.”
God knows that since July of 2008 he hasn’t had many of those.