DUNEDIN, Fla. — Over and over Jesse Litsch was told last season that his arm speed simply wasn’t there.
He heard it from Toronto Blue Jays pitching coach Bruce Walton. He heard from former bullpen coach Rick Langford. And now retired manager Cito Gaston routinely wondered if his right-hander had come back too soon from ligament-replacement surgery on his right elbow.
The argument turned out to be a moot one as surgery to repair a labral tear in his right hip halted the 25-year-old’s comeback. Now, with more time to heal and strengthen the elbow, he has come to realize that they were right and he was wrong.
“I can see why they were saying last year that my arm speed wasn’t there, and I wasn’t agreeing with them,” said Litsch. “Feeling how I feel now compared to last year, the arm speed is there, balls are a lot tighter, I’m able to throw everything with good snap.
“My arm speed is unreal right now from a personal standpoint. I haven’t felt this good in a long time.”
That’s good news for both the Blue Jays and Litsch, who was establishing himself as a solid middle-of-the-rotation starter before his elbow blew up after just two outings in 2009.
He comes into this training camp as a leading contender for one of the two available spots in the rotation, in competition with Kyle Drabek, Marc Rzepczynski, Scott Richmond, Jo-Jo Reyes, Zach Stewart and Brad Mills.
Some positive reinforcement of Litsch’s progress came earlier this week while facing hitters for the first time. Pitching to Aaron Hill, he had his command back and painted the corners with cutters and change-ups.
Afterwards, Hill checked in with Litsch and asked, “That last pitch on the corner, was a cutter?” Getting a nod yes he shook his head and said, “That was just filth.”
New manager John Farrell has also gone out of his way to praise Litsch, offering an indication that the team has high hopes for him.
“We haven’t lost sight of the 13-game winner from a few years ago, his competitiveness and his ability to pitch,” said Farrell. “What I mean by that is his ability to make pitches in key spots. He’s certainly not afraid and doesn’t fear contact.”
A dogged approach on the mound has always been a key element for Litsch, who makes up for his average velocity with a biting cutter, deceptive change-up and curveball.
Good location and movement help him pitch to contact and allow his defence to do the rest.
He made his debut as a 22-year-old in 2007 and blossomed in 2008, particularly in the second half after a stint in the minors. He finished the year 13-9 with a 3.58 earned-run average, becoming a key part of a late Blue Jays run that fell short.
He made just two outings before his elbow blew in 2009, and then went 1-5 with a 5.79 ERA in nine uneven outings after being called up from his rehab stint. Then hip surgery shut him down.
“It’s been a struggle, up and down, but it’s a part of adversity that you have to overcome,” Litsch said of the injuries. “I never really get down, I’m pretty mentally strong so I’m able to get through stuff like that. If it was to happen again, who knows, but it’s a matter of being able to stay level-headed and go out there and get ready for the year.”
Having a new manager will help on that front, as Farrell underwent reconstructive elbow surgery twice during his pitching career and can better understand what Litsch is going through.
There’s also a sense that Litsch’s confidence was shaken when Gaston kept on publicly questioning his health last year.
“A fresh start is always good, especially coming off two years of injuries, that’s a big bonus for me,” he said. “(Farrell) is a guy that’s been on the other side and seen me a lot, that’s a good thing.
“Cito is legendary, he’s been around the game a long time so you’ve got to respect his words, but having new faces around is something that could be beneficial to a lot of the people around here.”
Litsch understands that nothing will be handed to him and he is prepared to earn his spot. In 2009, when A.J. Burnett left and injuries sidelined Shaun Marcum and Dustin McGowan, he was essentially handed the No. 2 slot in the rotation simply because there was no one else around.
That’s not the case now, as the Blue Jays feature a depth they haven’t had in years. He’s scheduled to pitch two innings Sunday against Detroit at Lakeland.
“You come here every day ready to battle, it’s how it was in ’08 and that’s how it’s going to be every year,” Litsch said. “There are guys down here trying to get your spot, it’s going to be fun, it’s going to be a good competition and I can only control what I can control, what’s inside me. I’m going to pitch my game and hope for the best.”
Notes: Second baseman Aaron Hill did not play in the club’s intrasquad game Thursday because of soreness in his right quad. The issue is minor and he is likely to play in Friday’s warmup contest . . . Outfielder Corey Patterson hit the only home run in the intrasquad game, off Alan Farina in the fifth inning. The Black team beat the Grey team 3-0.