Ryan looks, feels good in debut
Blue Jays closer strikes out two in 12-pitch first inning
ST. PETERSBURG -- B.J. Ryan's Grapefruit League debut was short and sweet. It was the type of outing that the Blue Jays hope will be a regular part of ninth innings throughout the upcoming season.
On Friday afternoon, when ominous clouds hovered over Progress Energy Park, Toronto decided to send its recovering closer to the mound during a very unfamiliar inning. In order to make sure Ryan was able to squeeze in his work before rain could ruin the pitcher's schedule, the Jays used the left-hander as their starting pitcher against the Rays.
In his first game appearance since April 14 of last season, Ryan swiftly retired the first three hitters in Tampa Bays' lineup. Ryan, who underwent Tommy John ligament replacement on his left elbow in May, was thrilled to finally move beyond all the simulated games and bullpen sessions he completed at the Bobby Mattick Training Center this spring.
"Taking those drives over to Bobby Mattick, it was tough," Ryan said. "It kind of wears on you. You feel like you're a part of the team, but you're really not with them yet. You hadn't gone out there and you hadn't sat on the bench with them and pulled for them.
"So it was good to get out there. Granted it was the first game, and it is what it is, but it was fun."
Fun while it lasted at least. The 32-year-old Ryan needed just 12 pitches, including eight strikes, to set down Rays second baseman Elliot Johnson, left fielder Carl Crawford and third baseman Willy Aybar in order. Ryan used both his fastball and slider and was pleased with his location to both sides of the plate.
"It's been a while since we've seen him out there," Toronto manager John Gibbons said. "But he really looked good. He feels good about that. Plus, it's encouraging for us."
After slipping into a 1-1 count to lead off the game, Johnson bunted Ryan's third offering down the first-base line. The 6-foot-6 pitcher sprinted off the mound, gloved the ball and easily threw the runner out at first base. Johnson's bunt only added to the adrenaline that was already pumping through Ryan's system.
"It kind of cuts those lights on," Ryan said with a grin. "These guys are trying to score and are going to do whatever. It was good to get out there, and it was good to face some guys that I've seen and have known before and had some real grinder at-bats against."
Against Crawford, Ryan misfired for a ball to open the at-bat. Ryan's next three pitches, which tailed away from the left-handed-hitting left fielder, each registered for strikes -- Crawford swinging unsuccessfully at each one.
Ryan's day concluded against the switch-hitting Aybar, who stepped into the right-handed batter's box to face the closer. The five-pitch confrontation concluded with Aybar heading back to the dugout to retrieve his glove after being Ryan's second strikeout victim of the day.
"It was better [Friday]," Ryan said about his location. "It could've been a little bit of the environment -- kind of getting into the flow of the game again. I threw a couple good pitches to Crawford out away from him and kind of had him reaching for it a little bit.
"Then the last guy I faced, I kind of stayed away and then I stuck one in there good, which is something I wanted to do today, because I haven't been doing it very well. It was good to see."
Blue Jays pitching coach Brad Arnsberg, who estimated Ryan was throwing around 88-89 mph, was especially pleased with the inside offering that struck out Aybar.
"He was struggling a little bit to get the ball over to the glove side of the plate," Arnsberg said about Ryan. "That last pitch he struck that right-hander out with was the one that we were looking for."
Over the past few weeks -- which included three simulated games, one batting-practice session and a lot of bullpen outings for Ryan -- the lefty has been trying to regain a comfortable arm slot, dealing with inconsistent location as a result. Ryan has been spotting his pitches better against left-handed batters, so he was pleased with the results against righties Friday.
"I have a lot more experience facing those guys," said Ryan, referring to left-handed batters. "You face a lot of righties, but that's kind of always the last thing to come for me. I'm kind of backwards in that way, but it will come."
Ryan's just happy that he's able to focus on his delivery mechanics and his location instead of worrying about his health.
"You're going to hit some bumps and some bruises along the way," Ryan said, "and you're going to hit some fatigue and some soreness, but it's healed now. The rest is between your ears."
After signing a five-year contract worth $47 million to be the Blue Jays' closer in November 2005, Ryan had a 1.37 ERA and 38 saves in his first season with Toronto. Last April, though, Ryan was sidelined with the elbow injury and had season-ending reconstructive surgery on the joint May 10.
He's attempting to be able to rejoin Toronto's bullpen in time for Opening Day, which would mean he'd be less than a year removed from the operation -- no small feat for any pitcher.
For the time being, the Blue Jays plan on keeping Ryan on a three-day schedule, meaning he'll have two days of rest between outings. According to that schedule, Ryan's next appearance is tentatively slated for Monday, when the Blue Jays take on the Pirates in Bradenton, Fla.
"It's kind of scary," Arnsberg said. "He's only a little over 10 months post-surgery. I don't get the nerves or anything while he's out there, but it's amazing how far he has come when you know where he was at.
"A year ago, we were putting the guy on the shelf. Now, we're letting him go out there and work his magic."
Jordan Bastian is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.