Litsch helps Jays eke out win vs. O's
Starter keeps team in game while battling for '09 rotation spot
TORONTO -- Next season is a little more than six months away, but there are already growing concerns about the makeup of the Blue Jays' rotation. The group that has been one of baseball's best staffs this season might have a much different look at the onset of the 2009 campaign.
Telling is the possibility that Jesse Litsch, with two seasons in the big leagues and just 23 years old, could enter next year as the most experienced starter for the Blue Jays outside of ace Roy Halladay. Injuries and one key contract situation have forced Toronto into this situation.
On Thursday, Litsch scraped out a win in a 3-2 victory over the Orioles, logging six rocky innings on a night the Blue Jays were waiting for results of an MRI exam for starter Shaun Marcum. Should Marcum require surgery on his ailing right arm, Litsch would continue his climb up the club's depth chart.
"Jesse is moving up the list," Blue Jays manager Cito Gaston said. "Jesse's doing a great job for us. He just keeps battling out there and giving us a chance to win."
Toronto (82-71) will hope that trend carries over into next season. Beyond Marcum's uncertain status, the Blue Jays might have to wait until May for the return of right-hander Dustin McGowan -- the recipient of season-ending right shoulder surgery in July. That would create two large holes in Toronto's starting staff.
A third vacancy could present itself shortly after the conclusion of the World Series. That's when Jays starter A.J. Burnett has the right to opt out of his contract, potentially leaving two years and $24 million of Toronto's money on the table in order to seek more dough as a free agent.
Blue Jays general manager J.P. Ricciardi has noted that the club would be willing to extend Burnett's current contract in an effort to convince him to stay in Toronto. Should Burnett still elect to leave, Litsch said he believes the Blue Jays have strong enough pitching in the Minor Leagues to survive.
"We've got a good farm system," Litsch said. "We've brought guys up and they've come up here and done good things. It's just a matter of finding the key guys and putting them out there and them doing the job."
Litsch has first-hand experience in that regard.
An injury to Halladay last season prompted Toronto to promote Litsch to its rotation all the way from Double-A New Hampshire. In two seasons since then, Litsch has gone 19-17 with a 3.76 ERA in 47 appearances for the Jays. His win over the Orioles (67-84) upped his record this season to 12-8 and trimmed his ERA to 3.72.
Litsch didn't breeze through his latest effort, though. The right-hander needed 107 pitches to complete his six innings and 48 of those registered as balls. The typically sharp Litsch walked four, including three in the fifth inning for Baltimore, and has issued nine free passes over his past two starts.
The trio of walks that loaded the bases with two outs in the fifth cost Litsch, who then yielded a two-run single to Alex Cintron to put Toronto behind, 2-1. That base hit effectively cancelled out the solo home run that Jose Bautista launched off Orioles lefty Garrett Olson in the first inning.
"I was just overthrowing," Litsch said. "Two-out walks hurt you always -- a base hit right after that. That's just how the day went today. I was just trying to battle through it and keep the team in the ballgame."
Litsch accomplished that much.
Toronto managed to erase its one-run deficit in the sixth inning, when Olson was pulled with runners on first and second and two outs. O's reliever Jim Miller entered the game and two pitches in, Gregg Zaun pulled a pitch into right for a two-run double. Zaun was thrown out trying to advance to third base, but the Jays had moved ahead for good, 3-2.
"I kind of knew he was out when he stepped on second," said Gaston, managing a chuckle in response to Zaun's ill-fated sprint. "I knew that he was going to have trouble getting to third, but he came up with a big hit for us. So, what can you say but, 'Thanks and congratulations.'"
Zaun's hit helped salvage a win for Litsch, who figures to be an important part of the rotation next season. Behind Litsch and Halladay, though, there will be a bevy of pitchers vying for spots on the staff. That could include Scott Richmond, who will take Marcum's turn in the rotation on Sunday.
"We want to give him a look, too, since all these guys are hurt," Gaston said. "Maybe he can step forward and be one of our starters next year."
Jordan Bastian is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.