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08/08/11 7:11 PM ET

McGowan's long journey back almost complete

Blue Jays righty eyes September return after three years of rehab

Dustin McGowan has gone through a long and painful road to recovery, but there finally appears to be a light at the end of the tunnel in a rehab that has been more than three years in the making.

The 29-year-old hasn't pitched in the Major Leagues since July 2008. During the next two years, he was forced to undergo a series of major surgeries that at least temporarily derailed a once-promising career.

McGowan now appears to be on the verge of defying the odds and nearing a return. The native of Savannah, Ga., is on the path back to Toronto and is optimistic that when September rolls around, he'll be ready to complete the comeback.

"I do, I see the end a little bit," McGowan told MLB.com during an interview at the club's Minor League complex in Dunedin, Fla., late last week. "But you still have to take it day by day and just get better.

"That has been my goal from the start of this year. September, get back to the big leagues, and get back to pitching up there."

McGowan came to the Blue Jays' organization with lofty expectations when he was selected in the first round of the 2000 First-Year Player Draft.

By 2003, he was considered one of the best pitching prospects in the game, with the potential to become the first homegrown star since Toronto developed Roy Halladay, Chris Carpenter and Kelvim Escobar in the mid-to-late '90s.

The first setback occurred during 2004, when McGowan blew out his right elbow. The product of Long County High School underwent Tommy John surgery and was forced to miss the next 12 months.

McGowan bounced back and went on to make his Major League debut in 2005, but it wasn't until 2007 that he found a permanent home in Toronto. He used an overpowering fastball and impressive array of offspeed pitches to go 12-10 with a 4.08 ERA in 27 starts during the breakthrough campaign.

It appeared McGowan had finally arrived and would be a mainstay in the Blue Jays' rotation for years to come.

The hard luck continued the following season, though, as McGowan took himself out of a game on July 8, 2008, with soreness in his right shoulder, and he later underwent surgery to repair a frayed labrum.

In 2009, the health problems continued as McGowan had surgery to repair cartilage in his right knee. The biggest blow came the following year, when it was revealed that he had a torn rotator cuff in his right shoulder and then underwent a procedure that usually requires at least six months of rehab.

McGowan has been slowly working his way back into form since. He took up residency just outside of Dunedin and has spent countless hours working out at the Bobby Mattick Training Center. By McGowan's side for the entire journey has been his wife, Jilly, and daughter, McKensy.

"If I didn't have them, I would be crazy right now," McGowan said. "The one good thing about all of this is that right when I got hurt the first time, my daughter was born, so I've gotten to watch her grow up.

"My wife has been the rock that has kept me going. ... You're going to have your ups and downs, and I've kind of learned to roll with the punches, and once I got over the point knowing I was going to have my bad days, it made everything a lot easier."

Back on track

McGowan's major breakthrough came during Spring Training of this year, as he began to rediscover the velocity on his fastball that had been missing for so long.

"I can't be thankful enough for [the Blue Jays] sticking with me, and now it's my turn to help them and show them they did the right thing."
-- Dustin McGowan

The first challenge was getting over fears of sustaining another injury, and from there, it was building up his endurance by establishing a regular throwing program.

During McGowan's bullpen sessions and long toss with friend and teammate Robert Ray, there were glimpses of his past abilities. The consistency still wasn't there, but it was enough to prove he was headed down the right path.

"He would tell me, 'You know you had a couple you really had good life on,'" McGowan said. "That was the starting point. Just as long as I got one here or there, I knew it was there -- it was just a matter of building up arm strength all the way.

"I was a little more guarded. Even now, you catch yourself guarding a little bit. It's a matter of trusting yourself and knowing it's fixed and letting it go."

McGowan was able to do just that when he began an official rehab assignment on July 2 for Class A Dunedin.

It started with small steps, as he only pitched two-thirds of an inning during his first outing. McGowan progressed to two innings his next time out and began to settle into a schedule where his goal was to pitch three innings on approximately 40 pitches every time out.

Moving on up

McGowan's final outing for Dunedin came on Friday, when he struck out four and allowed just two hits in three frames. His next start will come at Double-A New Hampshire, where he is hoping to throw four innings.

That likely will continue for the next few weeks, with an eye to returning to the big league club in September. By the time he is ready, McGowan is hopeful to be able to throw five frames.

"I don't know how many pitches -- depends on how much they bring me along," said McGowan, who went 0-2 with a 2.87 ERA in 15 2/3 innings for Dunedin. "We'll see, the good thing about September is that you can go five innings, because you have so many callups that can pitch behind you.

"It's what I expected. There has been no pain, so that has been a plus. I seem to be recovering pretty well and about to build it up one more [inning]."

Blue Jays manager John Farrell has been closely monitoring the reports coming out of Dunedin. The two were able to catch up during the club's recent road trip to St. Petersburg to play the Rays, and the first-year skipper couldn't help but smile when asked last week what McGowan's latest level of progression means.

"The most important thing is that he's active, or at least in the process of regaining that active status," Farrell said.

"You can't imagine the perseverance -- and at times the loneliness -- that he has gone through," Farrell added. "To think of the work he has put in, he's finally starting to bear some of that fruit. This has got a chance to be a very rewarding story for himself and certainly the Blue Jays."

McGowan will now continue his work with Double-A New Hampshire manager Sal Fasano and pitching coach Pete Walker. Both men are his former teammates and likely will be rooting for McGowan the same way Blue Jays fans have been for the past three seasons.

Social media websites like Twitter have been abuzz following each of the right-hander's starts this season. They haven't lost faith, and according to McGowan, neither have the Blue Jays.

"It means a lot," McGowan said. "I think any other organization would have given up a long time ago -- after a few surgeries. I can't be thankful enough for them sticking with me, and now it's my turn to help them and show them they did the right thing.

"Down here, it's hard to know [the fans' reaction], but it makes you feel good that people still want to know how I'm doing. Hopefully I can get back up there and thank them for their support."

Gregor Chisholm is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, North of the Border, and follow him on Twitter @gregorMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.