TORONTO -- In the minutes leading up to Saturday's game between the Blue Jays and Pirates, Chris Rowley stood at the top of the dugout trying to compose his thoughts and ease his nerves. A little more than two hours later, he walked off to a standing ovation that will be burned into memory for the rest of his life.
Rowley became the first graduate of United States Military Academy to pitch in the Major Leagues when he debuted Saturday afternoon at Rogers Centre. More important, Rowley left a lasting impression by tossing 5 1/3 strong innings in Toronto's 7-2 victory over the Pirates.
Less than two years ago, Rowley was on active duty in the United States Army. The big leagues were nothing more than a pipe dream for the undrafted pitcher, who joined the Toronto organization as a Minor League free agent in the summer of 2013. Now he has a Major League win and an entirely new country filled with fans who are quickly learning his backstory.
"There's no way," Rowley said when asked if he envisioned this type of moment happening earlier in the season. "Obviously that's the dream but I don't think I had it in my mind that I'd be here right now."
Rowley technically is still in the U.S. Army in what is called the individual ready reserve. All graduates of West Point are required to spend five years in the military but Rowley was granted an early release in January of 2016. Later that year, he rejoined the Blue Jays organization and began what turned into a rather quick journey to the Major Leagues.
The 26-year-old spent last season at Class A Advanced Dunedin before opening this year in the bullpen at Double-A New Hampshire. Strong results led to a starting gig and a promotion to Triple-A Buffalo, where he posted a 2.82 ERA over 10 appearances. Along the way, the big league dream started to become more realistic. Toronto lost several key pitchers to injury and traded away Francisco Liriano. Suddenly there was a clear path to the Majors and before too long Rowley got the call.
That led to Saturday's outing, where Rowley looked cool and collected from the moment he stepped on the mound. He recorded a three-up, three-down first inning to ease whatever nerves remained and after a leadoff triple in the second inning, Rowley was able to limit the damage to one run. It was smooth sailing from there until the sixth when Rowley departed with a pair of runners on base. His afternoon came to an end with just one earned run on five hits, a walk and three strikeouts.
"It was actually the best I've seen him throwing his sinker away to right-handed hitters," said Blue Jays catcher Raffy Lopez, who also caught Rowley in Buffalo. "Usually it tends to move over the plate, but today it was the best he's been able to locate it down and away. The cutter, slider, whatever you want to call it is actually a fairly new pitch. It's maybe about three weeks old. One day we just started, we had a lead and said, 'Hey, let's work on it.' It's actually turned into, probably, his best pitch."
Rowley's parents and sister were in attendance and there will be countless memories that the rookie pitcher takes away from this outing, but nothing will compare to the feelings he experienced when walking off the field. When manager John Gibbons walked to the mound in the top of the sixth, the sold-out crowd of 46,179 rose to its feet and treated Rowley to a thunderous ovation.
"That was really, really cool," Rowley said. "Having my family here to share it with me, walking off and all those people standing, that was something that was really special for me. I don't think anybody really expects to experience that in their life but it was pretty special."
Gregor Chisholm has covered the Blue Jays for MLB.com since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @gregorMLB and Facebook, and listen to his podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.