Baby steps for Jays starters

BILL LANKHOF, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 5:54 PM ET

The euphoria of the Blue Jays' season-opening series is quickly disappearing in the rearview mirror as another embittered young man hit the dusty trail back to Las Vegas.

Brett Cecil, Thursday, was demoted. Jesse Litsch is already gone. Jo Jo Reyes is on probation with an ERA that reads like a Mississauga area code. Kyle Drabek remains a mystery to most hitters; yet is himself finding the major league strike zone a mystery.

So when Brandon Morrow returns to the mound from the disabled list Saturday, for the Jays, it can't come at a better time.

Not that this can't still have a happy ending but, Toronto's pitching staff is showing all the cracks that might've been expected from a young, talented, but inexperienced group.

"It all comes down to confidence," says veteran catcher Jose Molina of the kiddie corps in his charge. "It's not just knowing that you are in a big league clubhouse it is about believing you belong here. Sometimes that takes time. It's baby steps ... then bigger steps."

The scrappiness of opening week remains -- evidenced by six come-from-behind wins, including one Tuesday against the Yankees. But there are also hints the roster may be too young -- mentally if not athletically -- for the marathon run that is the hectic American League East.

The Jays rank in the middle in the American League in pitching but much of that is courtesy of a bullpen that ranks No. 1. Nobody in the starting rotation has more than one win, combining for a 4-7 record on a staff that has surrendered more walks (79) than any other team. "The effort, the attitude, the approach is definitely there; we need to stabilize things on the mound a bit," manager John Farrell said.

Everyone knew there would be a learning curve with this young staff. But knowing something unpleasant may occur doesn't make it any easier to deal with when it does happen. Cecil, the club's leading winner last season, has lost his fastball. Reyes has a 6.75 ERA. Drabek has shown flashes of brilliance, including 19 strikeouts in 24 innings. Exciting times.

Maybe, too exciting.

"I have to calm down and throw the ball. I'm real amped up when I get out there. When I have that ball in my hand I'm ready to go; for the most part I'm too ready," said Drabek, chuckling at an exuberance that may be playing into a location issue that has resulted in 15 walks. "You want to be excited ... you don't want to lose the intensity, but it's all about controlling it."

That comes with age; with experience. "After the first few innings it just becomes a regular game again," said Drabek.

But accepting that it's just baseball, just a job, doesn't come naturally after only seven major league games. When the TV lights go on "calm" isn't something a coach can teach.

The biggest adjustments from pitching in the minors, said Drabek, is that umpires in the majors seem a tad more finicky about the strike zone, and hitters don't fool as easy.

"(The strike zone) shrinks a little bit. The hitters are a lot more patient. They don't swing at all the stuff you want them to swing at like in the minors. They just are better at waiting for their pitch," said Drabek.

And, it's easy to forget the odds of success in this game rest with the pitcher said Drabek, when Mark Teixiera has just dropped a bombshell into the seats on you.

"One thing I have to remember it's still baseball and if they get me three out of 10 times they're doing well but that I'm going to get them the other seven times. It might be that I'm trying to be finer just because this is the big leagues now. I just need to be around the zone more."

Cecil's demotion wasn't entirely surprising. He had a 6.86 ERA and teams are hitting nearly .300 against him. Against the Yankees his fastball never hit 90. Some pitchers can get by with that, but the Jamie Moyers of the world had to learn how to compensate.

Cecil may yet become the next Jimmy Key and Drabek may yet become a rotation lynch-pin like his father, Doug, who pitched for 13 seasons. Still, while being the son of a major leaguer has its benefits, it could surprisingly, also have a downside.

"People always ask him about his dad," said Molina. "He's got to throw all that stuff out the window and I've talked to him about that. He's got to understand that he's here because of what he can do, not because of who his father is. He's wanted to do everything at once ... be like his father. Nobody can do that ... he's got to make a name for Kyle."


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