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Jenkins making strong impression in camp

Jenkins making strong impression in camp

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DUNEDIN, Fla. -- Aaron Hill adjusted his helmet with his right hand and settled into his stance in the batter's box on one of the Blue Jays' practice fields. The second baseman turned to face catcher Raul Chavez, smiled and then spoke softly.

"Tell me when that bowling ball is coming in," Hill requested.

Hill was referring to the sinking fastball from Chad Jenkins -- the Blue Jays' top pick in the 2009 First-Year Player Draft. It is a pitch that caught the eyes of Toronto scouts last year and one that looked particularly sharp on Friday morning, when a handful of pitchers took to the mounds for the first batting-practice sessions of Spring Training.

Jenkins, with a mop of shaggy brown hair jutting out from under his Blue Jays hat, wound up his large frame and let loose with another sinker. The pitch popped into Chavez's glove over the outside corner. Hill did not offer a swing, but he turned to the veteran catcher again -- this time shaking his head and marveling at the early spring strike.

"Man, that was a nice pitch," Hill said.

The Blue Jays hope to someday have Jenkins on the hill in Toronto, firing off similar strikes on the Major League stage. For now, the big right-hander -- who is 25 pounds lighter since being signed in August -- is simply soaking up his first taste of big league camp and using the opportunity to learn from the players around him.

This spring, the Bobby Mattick Training Center is filled with young players, especially on the mound. The race for rotation jobs is wide open, but Jenkins knows his time will come to compete for a spot with the Blue Jays down the road. Until then, he's trying to stay in the background.

"I've been told by some of the veterans to just know your place," Jenkins said. "That's what I've tried to do. I keep my mouth shut and I stay to myself."

On Friday, Jenkin's arm did plenty of talking for him.

Jenkins was the second pitcher to take the mound on Field No. 2 at the Jays' complex, following lefty Ricky Romero, and he was forced to throw to Toronto's heavy hitters. Before Hill stepped up to the plate, Jenkins was first charged with the task of facing the left-handed-hitting Adam Lind, who belted 35 homers and drove in 114 runs last season.

The 22-year-old Jenkins was nervous enough, considering he had not faced a batter since May -- with the exception of brief mound duty during instructional league in the fall. Having Lind step in as his first opponent of the spring only made things worse for the young pitcher.

"I felt bad for Lind," Jenkins said with a laugh. "I didn't feel like I gave him anything to hit. I was a little nervous. It's my first hitter and, of course, my first hitter was Lind. And I was like, 'Uh oh. I'm going to be all over.' I couldn't find the zone. I think he gave me a pity swing on a changeup.

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"After that, I settled down just fine."

Directly behind home plate leaning on the batting cage was Blue Jays manager Cito Gaston. As he watched, Jenkins unleashed one of his signature sinkers high and inside to center fielder Vernon Wells, whose swing could not catch up with the pitch.

"Wow," said Gaston, stepping away from the cage quickly when the pitch was fouled straight back.

Gaston was more than impressed with what he saw from Jenkins.

"That ball was moving," Gaston said. "It moves. It sinks. He threw Vernon a high, running sinker that would just eat you alive. I'm just glad Vernon got out of the way. I think he's going to come pretty quick."

Jenkins might very well be in a position to rise quickly through the Blue Jays' system, but the club is not going to rush him. Vice president of baseball operations and assistant general manager Tony LaCava said that Jenkins will likely open this season with low-Class A Lansing or high-Class A Dunedin. His performance this spring will dictate where he starts.

The Blue Jays selected Jenkins with the 20th overall pick in June, but the righty did not sign with the club until two days before the deadline in August. As a result, he did not pitch in Toronto's system last year. Shortly after signing, though, Jenkins moved to Clearwater, Fla., so he could begin training at the team's Spring Training headquarters.

As Jenkins worked with the Jays' staff, he noticed something: he began shedding pounds at a rapid rate. When he was drafted, Jenkins was listed at 6-foot-4 and 225 pounds. Heading into the spring, he was down to about 200 on the scale, primarily due to improved eating habits. Jenkins said eating right was a big problem while balancing being a student and an athlete at Kennesaw State University.

"As most college students know, the budget's not quite there," Jenkins said. "It's just the type of food I have available to eat now. I don't have to live off dollar menus. Especially being on the road while you're in school, meal money might cover McDonald's on a good day. You just didn't have time to eat good food.

"You start taking care of yourself and your body starts taking care of you."

LaCava said he was pleasantly surprised to see Jenkins' improved physical condition.

"We saw a physical kid, although maybe not in the best condition," said LaCava, referring to scouting Jenkins as a college pitcher. "What he's done to himself this winter is really impressive. He got after it and he did it the right way. He really transformed his body."

Jenkins also impressed some hitters.

"He was good," Lind said. "He can get people out in the big leagues."

That's high praise that brings a smile to Jenkins' face.

"To hear stuff like that is a huge compliment," he said. "That's awesome. I'm glad I threw up some good stuff on the first day."

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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