05/03/09 5:40 PM ET
Richmond leads Toronto to sweep
Right-handed rookie realizing Major League dream
By Jordan Bastian / MLB.com
Richmond has come a long way since Spring Training.
The last pitcher to be handed a rotation job, after injuries and poor performances bounced his main competitors out of the race, Richmond didn't enter the season with his confidence soaring. That has changed significantly over the course of the past month.
On Sunday afternoon, Richmond turned in seven strong innings to help Toronto to a 4-3 victory over Baltimore, sealing a three-game series sweep and sending the Jays to their best start through 27 games since 1992. It marked the fourth win in five starts for Richmond, whose confidence has lifted since the waning days of Spring Training.
"It's 100 times better," Richmond said. "I didn't make the team until the last couple days. It's a lot better now. We had a great April as a team. I had a good one as well, and I plan on turning that into May here and just keep building on it every time."
Led by Richmond's performance and powered by home runs from Alex Rios and Vernon Wells, the Blue Jays improved their record to 18-9. That is the best run out of the gates since Toronto posted the same mark to begin the 1992 campaign, when the club eventually captured the first of its back-to-back World Series titles.
This season's Blue Jays have bolted out to their fast start behind a potent offense, strong defense and a pitching staff that has done well to overcome the plethora of issues that have come up. Due to injuries and other problems, ace Roy Halladay and Richmond are the only remaining members from Toronto's Opening Day rotation.
Halladay has been Halladay, eating innings and earning wins. Richmond, on the other hand, has been a pleasant surprise.
"That was our No. 5 starter," said catcher Rod Barajas, eyes wide and smiling. "Right now he's pitching nowhere near like a No. 5 starter. He's our No. 2 guy. He goes out there every single game and he gives us an opportunity to win the games and he shuts teams down.
"The way he's stepped up and the way he's pitched for us, it's something that we desperately needed, and we need him to keep going."
Richmond's path to the Blue Jays has been well-documented. Richmond -- a native of North Vancouver, British Columbia -- spent a few years working in the Vancouver shipyards after high school before getting a chance to pitch at the collegiate level and then for Edmonton in independent ball.
Toronto signed him as a non-drafted free agent two winters ago, and he made his way to the Jays' staff for a five-start stint last season. Richmond's career between Edmonton, the Minors and Toronto was unspectacular, as he went 20-30 with a 4.37 ERA in 106 games over the past four years, and he knows it.
"My records in independent ball and the Minor Leagues weren't amazing," Richmond said. "But you can grow as a pitcher. Up here, you have the greatest coaches ever and we were the best pitching staff the last few years in the American League."
With his latest outing against the Orioles (9-16), Richmond improved to 4-0 with a tidy 2.67 ERA through five starts this season. Over 30 1/3 innings, the righty has surrendered 25 hits, allowed nine earned runs and amassed 26 strikeouts with 12 walks.
It's been a drastic upgrade over Richmond's performance during the spring, when he barely nudged out left-handed prospect Brad Mills for a spot on the starting staff.
"He's made such great strides from spring," Barajas said. "His location, his ability to mix pitches behind in the count, the mistakes are way down -- he's pitching like a Major Leaguer. He got a late start in this game, and now he's catching up. And he's doing it quick, and he's turning into one of our horses out there."
Blue Jays manager Cito Gaston won't say he is surprised by Richmond's early season showing.
"Anything is possible," Gaston said. "I expect the best out of my players and myself, too, so I'm not surprised. I'm happy. I'm very happy for him, because he's a good kid and he's been trying to get on this level for a long time and have success. It looks like he's starting to have some now."
Richmond, who has yet to allow more than three runs in any of his 10 career starts with Toronto, slipped some in the second inning against the Orioles before cruising through his final five frames. In the second, Richmond allowed a leadoff single to Aubrey Huff and later watched a 1-1 pitch rocket off the bat of Luke Scott for a two-run homer.
Scott's blast pulled the game into a 2-2 tie, erasing the lead Wells provided a half-inning earlier with a two-run homer of his own for the Blue Jays. Toronto moved ahead again against Baltimore starter Jeremy Guthrie (2-2) in the fourth -- thanks to an RBI single by Barajas -- but that advantage was short-lived.
In the fifth inning, a throwing error by Barajas paved the way for another run for the Orioles, but the Jays received a solo homer from Rios in the home half of the frame to take a 4-3 lead. That was cushion enough for left-hander Scott Downs to pick up a save, clinching another win for Richmond.
"I'm happy I'm contributing," Richmond said. "I'm happy I'm pitching well. I'm so focused out there. We're doing so great and these guys are hitting so well and playing unbelievable defense that I've got to do my job. I've got to do it. I've got to go out there and keep us in the game."
Jordan Bastian is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.