Big Hurt, McGowan take it to Sox
Thomas slugs three homers to support right-hander's gem
TORONTO -- After using eight hurlers and 215 pitches on Sunday afternoon, the Blue Jays desperately needed Dustin McGowan to throw a lot of innings in their series opener against the Red Sox.
Mission accomplished. Not only did McGowan eat up a lot of innings, he saved the bullpen from having to throw a single pitch.
The right-hander's dominance, combined with three home runs by Frank Thomas, paved the way for Toronto's 6-1 victory on Monday night at Rogers Centre.
Prior to the series opener, Jays manager John Gibbons sat in his dugout, thinking about which of his relievers were available to pitch after Sunday's contest against the Orioles, which lasted four hours and 25 minutes.
The only guys out of the bullpen who weren't used in that game were rookie right-hander Josh Banks, the erratic Josh Towers, and left-hander Scott Downs, who was still unavailable to pitch because of a sore right foot.
"We don't have very many down there, that's for sure," Gibbons said uneasily.
A solid outing from McGowan was going to be the only solution. Anything less and things could've gotten out of hand in a hurry.
The 25-year-old delivered exactly what Gibbons was looking for by throwing a complete game and allowing just one run on five hits while throwing 122 pitches. Gibbons said afterwards that McGowan was fully aware of the situation he was facing, and the pressing need to give the team's bullpen a rest.
"They all recognize that," Gibbons said. "Those pitchers, they set goals to at least go seven innings every time they go out there. They know when the bullpen is a little short and he gave us what we needed. Without that, it might've been a long night."
Lately, most of the talk surrounding the Jays' young pitching staff has been about fatigue. But while fellow right-handers Shaun Marcum, Jesse Litsch and Jeremy Accardo have seen their performances slip in recent weeks, McGowan (10-9) is showing no signs of slowing down.
He's thrown eight innings in three of his last four starts and is 3-1 with a 2.40 ERA over that span. McGowan now has 17 quality starts this season, all of which have come in his last 22 outings.
Those impressive numbers this late in the season have drawn comparisons to Toronto's Roy Halladay and A.J. Burnett, something Gibbons agreed with after the game. While McGowan thinks some of that praise may be a little premature, it also fuels his motivation to live up to the hype.
"Anytime you can be put in the same sentence with those two it feels like you've won something," McGowan said. "Hopefully it'll continue, [I'll] finish the season strong, go into the offseason, work hard, and get ready for next year."
The Sox managed to put just four runners into scoring position against McGowan. Their only run came in the top of the fourth inning off a double from third baseman Mike Lowell, which was nearly caught by Adam Lind, who lost control of the ball after he crashed into the wall in left field.
Aside from that one little mistake, McGowan was nearly perfect. He struck out nine and didn't walk a single batter.
"Dustin was tremendous today," Thomas said. "When he's prepared mentally, he's as good as any starter in baseball. I know that's a bold, bold statement, but it's true. His stuff can totally dominate a team and when he's on, he's on. I don't care how good the hitters are. When he's on, he's something to deal with."
As dominating as McGowan was against Boston, he may have been one-upped by Thomas. The veteran slugger provided his starter with all the run support he would need, by homering three times, and driving in five of Toronto's six runs.
The three home-run night moves Thomas into a tie with Ernie Banks and Eddie Mathews for 18th on the all-time list with 512. The only other time Thomas had three homers in a game came on Sept. 15, 1996, which also came against the Red Sox. Right-hander Tim Wakefield was the starter in both games, although unlike the previous contest, he only surrendered two of Thomas' blasts on Monday night.
"It was one of those days where everything clicked," said Thomas, who is now hitting .271 with 25 home runs and 91 RBIs this season. "I'm just happy. I'm really happy, even though we know we're going home in 13 days, I still want to finish strong. Still, in my mind, I want to drive in 100 runs. That's been a goal over the past couple weeks."
The season may be on its final stretch but Toronto's win represents yet another big step McGowan has taken towards becoming a legitimate Major League power pitcher. With his curveball not working early on, McGowan used a sharp slider and a blistering 98-mph fastball to keep hitters off balance all game.
He's now advanced to the point where he realizes he no longer has to worry about making the team next season. Instead he can spend his offseason focusing on the upcoming challenge of the 2008 season.
"The past couple of springs, not knowing whether you're going to make the team or not," McGowan said, "you try just a little too hard. Next year, I know I have something to look forward to, try to make the starting rotation again, and have fun with it."
With the victory, the Jays (75-75) have now won two of their last three games and find themselves back at the .500 mark.
Gregor Chisholm is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.