TAMPA, Fla. -- Mark Buehrle is about as reliable and consistent as it gets when it comes to starting pitchers in the Major Leagues.
The veteran left-hander has pitched at least 200 innings with double-digit win totals during each of the past 13 seasons. He's as much of a sure thing an organization can get in a game that's almost impossible to predict.
Even still, there have been at least a couple of surprises with Buehrle this year. The Blue Jays have seen him at his best before, but never quite this early.
"He has looked a little different this spring," Blue Jays manager John Gibbons said. "Everything is just right. His location is on, he's popping the ball just right. ... I know he's feeling good and I think he's a little bit surprised by how good he feels. So maybe that's a good thing."
If somebody wanted to be nitpicky about Buehrle's career they could point to the fact that he is a notoriously slow starter. His career ERA in March/April is 4.32, which is higher than any other month of the season. That was more glaring in 2013 when Buehrle started the year with a 7.02 ERA in his first seven starts.
That raised questions about whether Buehrle was finally hitting a wall, but then he went out and had another one of his typical years. Buehrle went 11-8 with a 3.43 ERA over his final 26 outings to right the ship and reach a lot of the milestones he seems to achieve year after year.
In an ideal world, though, a few of those early starts would have gone a little bit different. Perhaps that's one reason why the Blue Jays seem to be working Buehrle just a little bit harder this spring. Toronto got his pitch count up to 98 during Sunday's 3-1 win against the Yankees, and he appears stronger now than he did at this point last year.
The start against the Yankees was his second-to-last one of the spring. Buehrle allowed a run on seven hits and didn't walk a batter over 6 1/3 innings, and it appears as though he'd be just fine with the regular season starting tomorrow.
"He was doing what he has always been able to do, pounding the strike zone with every pitch," Blue Jays catcher Dioner Navarro said. "He certainly got ahead of a lot of hitters and made it a lot easier. He just did a great, great job.
"He got in trouble a couple of times and he threw a few ground balls for double plays. That's what he's going to do; he has been doing it for a long time, and I don't see anything changing."
The main goal for Buehrle on Sunday was to increase his pitch count to an acceptable level and make it into the seventh inning. He focused mainly on fastball command and didn't use much of his offspeed pitches in part because Buehrle said: "I've been in the league for 12-13 years, so they know what I throw, but just didn't want to show them everything."
There has never been a magical formula for Buehrle's success. His fastball only hits mid-80s velocity on a good day and there are enough scouting reports on him by now that Buehrle's not about to catch anyone by surprise. He defies everything that the stereotypical starting pitcher represents and shows just how effective someone can be when the ball is properly located.
Navarro was asked after Sunday's game whether the Yankees' hitters had any feedback about how Buehrle's stuff looked. It's a question that Navarro has been asked before about other pitchers and usually generates an interesting response. In this case, though, Navarro couldn't help but laugh.
"Everybody knows what it is, everybody knows what's coming," Navarro said. "I think you see hitters changing their game plan or their approach. Most of the guys take a pitch and walk out of the box. Now I see with him most of the guys just take a pitch and stay right there in the box to get ready for the next pitch.
"I don't think any of that stuff bothers him. If a hitter wants to take his time and step out, no big deal, he's just going to be ready for the next pitch."
Buehrle will now dial things back a little bit for his next start, which is scheduled for Friday night at Olympic Stadium in Montreal against the Mets. His pitch count will drop down as a way to rest just a little bit before the start of the regular season.
The native of St. Louis is expected to throw anywhere from five-to-six innings, and even though it'll be a brief outing, it's also one that could come in front of 40,000 people in a stadium that was accustomed to hosting Major League games in the past. It should provide that final bump in intensity Buehrle needs before things really start to count.
"It definitely helps out, you get in that atmosphere," said Buehrle, who turned 35 years old on Sunday. "The adrenaline pumps a little bit more because you know there's a bigger crowd. Just everything kind of clicks and it becomes real once the game starts."