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Hutchison works his way up to Jays' No. 2 starter

The SportsXchange

DUNEDIN, Fla. -- Drew Hutchison came to spring training as a candidate for the fifth spot in the Toronto Blue Jays' rotation.

He will leave as the No. 2 starter, barring the unforeseen in the final days of camp.

Hutchison earned the spot by the way he pitched. Now that he is fully recovered from Tommy John surgery that cut short a promising start to the 2012 season, the 23-year-old is showing why the Blue Jays liked his potential.

Hutchison's performance enabled the Jays to drop the struggling Brandon Morrow into the fifth spot in the rotation. That will give the presumptive No. 2 starter one more spring training start to prepare for his first start of the season April 4, the home opener against the New York Yankees.

Hutchison was called up in 2012 after making only three starts at Double-A New Hampshire (2-1, 2.16 ERA), which gave him a total of six career starts at that level. Through 11 major league starts, he was 5-3 with a 4.60 ERA before he was injured. He made 10 minor league appearances in 2013 on his comeback from the elbow surgery.

He said he has not changed much since his injury. The only difference is a fractional adjustment that allows him to stride more directly to home plate.

After he impressed in a 3-1 loss to the Boston Red Sox on March 14 -- four hits, one run, no walks, seven strikeouts -- he said he was not worried about where he would be in the rotation.

"I just stay in the moment," he said. "It doesn't do me any benefit to think ahead or think behind. I just focus on each pitch, execute and perform. My approach has been what it's always been. I'm not really surprised. As far as everybody else, I'm not really concerned about it. I prepared myself coming into camp to have a good camp and have a good year, continue to build off each start and continue to get better."

Catcher Dioner Navarro said, "He had that attack mentality and he utilized his fastball and his changeup really good."

Manager John Gibbons added, "He's been arguably our best pitcher in camp."

NOTES, QUOTES

--RF Jose Bautista hit two home runs and drove in four runs March 19 in Toronto's 11-6 win over the Philadelphia Phillies. The 2-for-4 outing boosted his batting average to .361 and gave him five home runs and 11 RBIs. Bautista's health is important to the Blue Jays. His 2013 season was cut short by a hip injury, and a wrist injury ended his 2012 season prematurely.

--LF Melky Cabrera, who was hampered last season by a non-malignant tumor in his spine, is enjoying a strong spring training, both in the outfield and at the plate. He made some running catches that were out of the question last year. He went 3-for-3 against the Detroit Tigers on March 18 in an 18-4 loss, then went 2-for-2 with two RBIs on March 19 in an 11-6 win over the Philadelphia Phillies to give him a .422 spring average with eight RBIs. Cabrera fouled a ball off the area of his right ankle before hitting a single in his second at-bat March 19 and was replaced by a pinch runner. Cabrera said he was fine. Manager John Gibbons said removing Cabrera was just a precaution.

--LHP Ricky Romero saw his chances of returning to the rotation end after he allowed the Detroit Tigers three runs, five walks and three hits in 2 2/3 innings on March 18. The Blue Jays lost the game 18-4. In his three previous games, he had a 1.29 ERA. Romero, who spent most of the 2013 season in the minors and was in camp as a non-roster player, was reassigned to the minor league camp March 19. "We feel for the guy," manager John Gibbons said. "It's not just looking at results. As much work as the kid's putting in, things like that -- the battles he's going through, mentally -- you root for him. You root for him extra hard. But we're encouraged. We're positive after this camp. He may look at it differently, but we feel positive with what he accomplished this spring."

--RHP Marcus Stroman, a 22-year-old non-roster player, was reassigned to minor league camp after allowing six hits and seven runs in one-third of an inning in Toronto's 18-4 loss to Detroit on March 18. "We really like what he did at this camp," manager John Gibbons said. "Just go down and polish it up. He was kind of the odd man out. He had trouble throwing strikes (against the Tigers), and he has to do that."

--RHP Casey Janssen (sore right shoulder) had yet to pitch in a spring training game when he threw batting practice March 18. He was scheduled for his first game action of the spring March 21 against the Phillies. "All in all, good to get on a mound, good to get a little bit of adrenaline going, and most importantly, it's good to feel good," said Janssen, who had 34 saves last season. Manager John Gibbons said Janssen came out of the session feeling great and that he likely would be used three or four times before the season opens March 31 at Tampa Bay.

--LHP J.A. Happ returned to pitch in a minor league game March 14, his first outing in 11 days after he rested a sore back. He appears set to open the season as the No. 4 starter.

"Yeah, I'm a big Happ fan, and I think he's going to have a heck of a year for us," manager John Gibbons said. "All indications the other day were his back is fine, he threw very well. That was a big question. Now, if his back flares up, it could be a different story."

Happ said: "I felt normal out there, which is really nice. It's definitely a step in the right direction."

Happ's return to Grapefruit League action was not so impressive. He said his back felt fine but his control was poor as he walked four and allowed three hits and three runs in 2 2/3 innings against the Philadelphia Phillies on March 19.

"It makes it a lot easier on yourself when you get ahead in the count, and today I didn't do that as much as I'd like," Happ said.

Gibbons said: "It was a battle for him. His stuff was good, he was popping the ball. In think he felt good, and that's important."

--RHP Brandon Morrow, who was presumed to be the No. 2 starter in the rotation when spring training opened, was dropped to No. 5, which means he will start the home opener against the New York Yankees on April 4. Morrow's schedule was adjusted due to the change, and he threw 3 2/3 innings (63 pitches) in a minor league game March 18, allowing four hits, two runs and two walks while striking out two.

"We're looking at (Morrow) at the end of the rotation right now, but it's not indicative of how he's doing or how he's feeling," pitching coach Pete Walker said. "It's just seems like it's a spot where we want him right now. Just because of the way it plays out. We're looking at the way guys are throwing, and Brandon right now, we want to make sure he's healthy, we want make sure he gets through the season healthy. We need him to be a big part of the rotation, and right now it's where he fits in."

Morrow was limited to 10 starts last season because of an entrapped radial nerve. The move allows Morrow one more spring start to prepare for the season, but that was only one reason for the decision. The other was performance. He was not particularly sharp in his first outings of spring training, while RHP Drew Hutchison was probably the team's best starter during that time.

--RHP Chad Jenkins was optioned to Triple-A Buffalo, but it is likely he and his sinker will return to the majors sometime this season. He did well in his stints with Toronto the past two seasons, and he did nothing to hurt his chances during spring training. He has an unusual grip on his sinker in that his fingers don't touch a seam. The result is what is called a "dry spitter" because of the movement that is created.

"It doesn't look flashy," Jenkins said. "Nobody gets excited when I come in to pitch. I don't hit 95 (mph), but I've learned how to control the sinker, and my action gets a little better and better all the time. It's just a lot of repetition, throwing the same thing over and over again, and it's finally getting better and better.

"I'm getting more comfortable with it. I know what it should feel like every time. I know the conventional grip is fingers on the laces, but I didn't grab any laces when I throw mine. Some people like to feel the seams, but for me it's never worked, so it's been no seams on most of my pitches."

He also throws a changeup from the same slot as his fastball and also does not grab the seams on that pitch.

"He doesn't get the credit he deserves," manager John Gibbons said. "But he's going to pitch in the big leagues for a long time, I believe. He's got that go-to pitch, it's a ground-ball pitch. It's a reliable pitch, it's in the zone and it's got late life."

--RHP Neil Wagner had options left, so that meant he received an early demotion during spring training because there are others in a stacked bullpen who were out of options. He is likely to see major league action before long after proving he belonged following a call-up from Triple-A Buffalo last season.

"I know I belong at this level whether it's to start the season here or not," Wagner said before he was assigned to Buffalo. "It's a tough bullpen to crack."

Added manager John Gibbons: "He deserves to be pitching in the big leagues. The way we're set up now, we've got a few guys that are out of options, really good pitchers. Sometimes having an option works against you."

--2B Ryan Goins looked fine defensively playing both second base and shortstop during spring training, but his hitting was lacking. He broke out March 19 with a 3-for-4 game, including a triple and an RBI against the Philadelphia Phillies. In the process, he boosted his spring batting average to .209. "He needed that," manager John Gibbons said. "He hadn't gotten a lot of hits, but he had hit some balls hard."

QUOTE TO NOTE: "The actual rotation doesn't matter to me. For me, I'd be more excited about pitching in the home opener than the second game of the season. I mean, I'll pitch whenever they ask me to, 1 through 5. For me, who cares? I think it would be more fun to pitch the home opener, though." -- RHP Brandon Morrow, on being dropped from No. 2 to No. 5 in the rotation, meaning he likely will start the home opener against the New York Yankees on April 4.
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