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McGowan throws sixth bullpen session

McGowan throws sixth bullpen session

DUNEDIN, Fla. -- Dustin McGowan slid his fingers over the seams of the baseball that rested in his glove. Years of experience told him that he was holding the ball in the correct manner, but the grip felt completely foreign to the Blue Jays pitcher.

McGowan had not thrown a curveball in 592 days. Third inning. Orioles second baseman Brian Roberts at the plate. First pitch. McGowan sent a breaking ball diving low and inside for a ball. After working four innings that afternoon for Toronto, the young pitcher left the game with an aching right shoulder.

For McGowan, that outing on July 8, 2008, feels like it took place ages ago. At the time, McGowan appeared to be on the verge of establishing himself as one of baseball's top young starters, giving the Jays the type of power arm that teams try to build rotations around.

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That was before injury woes struck with such force that McGowan allowed doubts about his future to creep into his mind. Now, standing on a mound on a cool Saturday morning at the Bobby Mattick Training Center, McGowan is trying to prove that he can come back once and for all, and trying to show that he is worthy of a spot in Toronto's rotation.

First, he had to try a curveball.

"I just wanted to get that feel -- that spin on the ball," McGowan said.

McGowan toed the rubber, brought his hands together, kicked his left leg up and drove his body forward -- arm whipping behind as he unleashed the pitch. The baseball spun in the air and popped into the glove of the catcher. Just like that, the first curveball of McGowan's comeback had been thrown. And it did not go anywhere near where McGowan was trying to place it.

"No," McGowan said with a laugh. "I was just trying to make it anywhere around the plate. I wasn't worried about a strike. I didn't want to bounce any."

That toss came during McGowan's sixth bullpen session leading up to the Blue Jays' first official workout for pitchers and catchers on Monday. McGowan is admittedly not at full strength, but he believes a few more sessions on the mound will put him on pace with the other arms in camp for Toronto. The race for the rotation is wide open, and McGowan badly wants to be in the mix.

It has been a long road filled with setbacks for McGowan -- a first-round Draft pick in 2000 and a 12-game winner for the Jays in '07 -- but the progress he has made over the course of this offseason has lifted his confidence. The Jays have more than a dozen pitchers vying for a spot on the starting staff this spring, and McGowan feels he can fight for a spot on the Opening Day roster.

"Realistically, yeah, that's what I'm shooting for," McGowan said. "I guess it all depends on, not just myself, but the decision they make and what they want to do -- what's best for me. But realistically, I'm coming in and I'm going to compete for a job."

That goal seemed more like a pipe dream last year for McGowan.

After McGowan underwent surgery to repair fraying of the labrum in his right shoulder on July 31, 2008, the Blue Jays projected that he could return by May 2009. During Spring Training last year, McGowan was still dealing with discomfort in his arm and it quickly became apparent that Toronto's initial target date was unrealistic.

By March, McGowan decreased his workload to help ease the pain and then made a second trip to see Dr. Timothy Kremcheck -- his surgeon -- to make sure there were not any major complications. McGowan was cleared to continue on his throwing program, and the right-hander slowly and gradually made his way back to a mound in June.

The pain resurfaced and McGowan was forced to stop.

"It was just painful," he recalled. "I was trying to grind it out every pitch and I just got to the point where I said, 'I can't do it.' I was just more worried about completely destroying my shoulder at that point. I just thought it was safe at that time to shut it down."

At home in Florida with his wife, Jilly, and baby daughter, Kensy, McGowan started wondering if his career was in serious jeopardy. If a simple mound session was proving to be such a serious obstacle, how was McGowan supposed to believe he could again throw against baseball's best hitter on the big league stage?

McGowan began worrying about possibly needing a second surgery -- something that could derail things for good.

"It just seemed like it would never quit hurting," McGowan said. "My biggest fear was that I'd have to go back in and get surgery, and who knows what would happen again after that? But I've got a good wife who kept me positive, telling me everything would be all right. It's good to have people who believe in you."

McGowan could not catch a break, though.

Last July, shortly after McGowan resumed playing catch, his left knee gave out on him during a routine running drill. The pitcher went under the knife again -- this time to repair cartilage damage -- and he was sidelined for more than a month. It was an extremely frustrating turn of events for McGowan, who wondered what else could possibly go wrong.

Looking back on things now, McGowan believes the knee injury was a blessing in disguise.

"I had just started throwing, and [my shoulder] was aching," McGowan said. "I mean, I was throwing from 45 feet and it was aching. Then, the next day I had the knee injury and it just gave me five or six weeks of no throwing to rest.

"Once I had that rest, my shoulder felt really good. So I think it really helped."

By the end of January, McGowan was back on a mound again. The first session was nothing out of the ordinary, but the fact that McGowan worked through it without feeling any discomfort was a major step in his recovery. The pitcher has now completed six pain-free mound workouts, adding an intriguing element to the rotation race.

McGowan is also out of player options, putting the Blue Jays in an interesting position. If Toronto wants to send him to the Minor Leagues, McGowan would first need to clear waivers, giving other teams the opportunity to claim him. In order to avoid that process, Toronto's options are limited to placing McGowan on the disabled list to open the year or bringing him north with the team.

Understandably, the Blue Jays are currently maintaining guarded expectations for McGowan. If he continues to show he is healthy and can compete for a job, that will be a welcomed development for the club. Right now, though, it is not clear where McGowan falls on the depth chart among the many starting candidates in camp.

Most published projections for the Blue Jays' Opening Day staff do not include McGowan's name.

As far as he is concerned, that is hardly a big deal.

"I'm not worried about that," McGowan said. "That's kind of when you've got to step your game up a little bit. It gives you a little bit of motivation. If they want to count me out, that's fine."

All McGowan is worrying about right now is the next step in his comeback.

Hopefully the curveballs get easier from here.

"It was a little weird," he said with a laugh. "I'm sure a couple more times and I'll get a feel for it."

Jordan Bastian is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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