Jesse Litsch had just turned in the longest outing by a Blue Jays pitcher in his big-league debut. This, from a 22-year-old right-hander who was with Double-A New Hampshire until Toronto called and told him he'd be filling in for injured ace Roy Halladay. In Halladay-like fashion, Litsch came one out away from a complete game in a dominating performance that led the Blue Jays to a 2-1 victory over the Orioles.
"The kid was outsanding -- wow," Blue Jays manager John Gibbons said. "He'll never forget that one. There's only your debut that one time and he did it the right way."
Litsch's performance also came on his father's 57th birthday. Rick, who wasn't about to miss his son's first Major League game, caught an early morning flight from Tampa to Buffalo, N.Y., and then drove the rest of the way to Toronto for Jesse's debut.
Back home in Florida, Rick said a crowd of friends gathered at a sports bar to watch Jesse's first taste of the big leagues. After all, the young pitcher was somewhat of a local legend. In 1993, an 8-year-old Jesse pitched 14 no-hit innings and went a perfect 46-for-46 at the plate for the Pinto Reds in the Pinellas Park Pony League.
"He has just a tremendous amount of people back home that were watching the TV tonight," Rick Litsch said. "They said the place they were at was more packed than it's ever been. The owner of the place set up a big screen."
Jesse didn't disappoint his fans back home. Litsch, who was selected by Toronto in the 24th round of the 2004 First-Year Player Draft, allowed just one run on four hits in 8 2/3 innings for the Jays (17-22). The right-hander struck out just one, but he used a mix of cutters and sinkers to induce 21 outs via the ground ball, breaking a number of the Orioles' bats in the process.
"His ball cuts and sinks. It's coming in there as a strike and it breaks at the last second," Gibbons marveled. "It looks like it's out over the plate and then it saws you off. That's the key to pitching. If you're not a 90-plus [miles per hour] guy, movement is everything. A lot of guys win that way and that leads to ground balls."
Litsch's performance was a continuation of the success he experienced at Double-A this season. In six starts with New Hampshire, the righty went 5-1 with a 0.96 ERA. In Litsch's last start in the Minors, he carried a no-hitter into the seventh inning. Toronto decided he had earned the chance to temporarily replace Halladay, who underwent an emergency appendectomy on Friday.
"I've seen him come up at other levels, and I've seen him challenge before, so I know what he's capable of," Rick Litsch said. "But I would've been happy with just an average outing. All of this is just great."
While Baltimore (18-22) continued to struggle against Litsch (1-0), whose only run allowed scored on a double-play groundout, while he worked through some first-inning jitters, Toronto did just enough against Orioles starter Daniel Cabrera (3-4). Jays right fielder Alex Rios belted a solo home run to lead off the game, and third baseman Troy Glaus chipped in an RBI single in the sixth to put Toronto ahead, 2-1.
That was enough support for Litsch, who came as close as one can to a complete game. The 99th pitch of Litsch's evening was called a ball, sending Baltimore shortstop Miguel Tejada jogging to first base with a two-out walk. With that, Gibbons decided to turn the game over to reliever Jeremy Accardo.
The crowd erupted in a chorus of boos, disapproving of Gibbons' decision to eliminate the rookie's bid for a complete game. Toronto's manager said afterward that the last thing he wanted to see, considering how Litsch had performed, was the young pitcher facing a potential loss.
"Of course it's tough to take him out, but there's no way he's going to get a chance to lose that game," Gibbons said. "They can question that all they want, but if you've got any common sense, there's no way he's losing that ballgame."
The boos quickly transformed to cheers as Litsch strolled to the dugout. After a few minutes on the bench, a few Toronto players pushed the young pitcher back up the steps to wave his hat to the crowd. Shortly thereafter, Accardo picked up his third save by retiring Aubrey Huff, who remembers Litsch from his days as a bat boy with the Tampa Bay Devil Rays during the 2001-02 seasons.
"It was a little strange [facing Litsch]," Huff said. "I am happy for the guy. He threw a good game -- too bad it was against us. I think it was his dad's birthday up there and it probably was one of the special days of his life."
"I would've loved to finish the game, but we've got relievers and closers to do that job," said Litsch, who was presented with the lineup card and the baseball's used for the first out, his first strikeout and the final out. "It was awesome. First big-league win is obviously one of the best experiences of my life."
After Litsch's first win was in the books, the Jays had another surprise in store for the pitcher. During his postgame TV interview, both center fielder Vernon Wells and starter A.J. Burnett treated Litsch to a towel filled with shaving cream to the face.
"That's fine. It means you're doing something good," Litsch said with a grin.
Rick Litsch, standing close by, wasn't forgotten by Wells, either.
"Icing on the cake and pie in my face," Rick Litsch said. "My 57th birthday, what more could I ask for? I'm going to have trouble getting to sleep."
"I'm glad he could make it," Jesse said about his father's presence. "But he has to go back to work."
Not before the two celebrate some more Tuesday night.