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Toronto Blue Jays starting pitchers Dustin McGowan (L), Brett Cecil (C) and Ricky Romero (R) watch from the dugout before their MLB Grapefruit League baseball game against the Boston Red Sox in Dunedin Florida, March 7, 2012. REUTERS/Mike Cassese (Mike Cassese/Reuters)
Toronto Blue Jays starting pitchers Dustin McGowan (L), Brett Cecil (C) and Ricky Romero (R) watch from the dugout before their MLB Grapefruit League baseball game against the Boston Red Sox in Dunedin Florida, March 7, 2012. REUTERS/Mike Cassese (Mike Cassese/Reuters)

Robert MacLeod

Blue Jays' playoff hopes rest with rotation Add to ...

Carlos Villanueva was heavily involved in his work in the Toronto Blue Jays clubhouse, barking out comments as he stared intently at a television monitor from the comfort of a couch.

“That's another first-round knockout,” the Blue Jays' relief pitcher proclaimed. “Don't cry Mac, you lost.”

It was several hours before the Jays major-league baseball season opener here on Thursday against the Cleveland Indians and Villanueva was playing Mike Tyson's Punch-Out, the classic Nintendo boxing video game that came out in the late 1980s.

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The Blue Jays can only hope their starting pitching rotation can provide the same knockout power this year that Villanueva was exhibiting in the video game.

“It is young and it is inexperienced,” said John Farrell, the Blue Jays manager and a former pitching coach. “But we like the talent and the potential that does exist.”

Blue Jays general manager Alex Anthopoulos rolled the dice in the off-season and did not add any new arms to the starting rotation through free agency or trades, believing his team had the talent to do the job.

It's a big gamble for a team that has playoff aspirations but will need to improve significantly on last year's 81-81 regular-season finish if it hopes to contend in the minefield that is the American League East.

Ricky Romero is the unquestioned ace of the staff and will be relied upon to carry another big load this season, although his season got off to a rocky start on Thursday.

The stocky left-hander coughed up four runs – all in the second inning – off three hits over five innings of work, but the Blue Jays were able to battle back, outlasting the Indians 7-4 in 16 innings.

The game was the longest season opener in baseball history.

The Blue Jays had an off-day on Friday and will get back to work on Saturday when Brandon Morrow will be on the mound for Toronto in the second game of the three-game set.

The Blue Jays can ill afford many more sub-par performances from Romero, whose consistency was his primary calling card last season, with 25 of his 32 starts rated as quality outings.

Romero's record was 15-11 with a tidy 2.92 earned-run average, but he was dogged by poor run support.

The Blue Jays only averaged 4.5 runs in games that Romero started and in five of his losses the team was shut out three times and scored just one run in the other two.

“He's evolving into an elite pitcher in the American League,” comes the assessment from Farrell.

Along with Morrow, whose average of 10.19 strikeouts per nine innings led the AL in 2011, the Blue Jays feel they have a solid one-two punch at the top of the rotation.

After that, it gets a bit murkier with newcomer Joel Carreno, who will pitch Sunday, lining up in the No. 3 slot, followed by left-hander Henderson Alvarez and then Kyle Drabek.

Carreno, who the Blue Jays signed as a free agent out of the Dominican Republic in 2004, beat out Brett Cecil for the final spot in the rotation – even though he's never made a start beyond Double-A.

“We like the potential but yet there may be some growing pains along the way with those three,” Farrell concedes.

Alvarez has looked solid, but only has 10 starts from last year under his belt. And Drabek has yet to live up to the potential that made him the cornerstone acquisition in the Roy Halladay trade in 2009.

The Blue Jays felt that Drabek's tendency to fall off the mound toward first base at the end of his delivery was at the root of his control problems.

During spring training, pitching coach Bruce Walton installed ropes that extended from the edges of the rubber to the front of the mound.

Drabek had to concentrate to keep his right foot landing in the same spot between the ropes during his bullpen sessions.

The unorthodox measure provided dividends – at least during spring training where Drabek posted a 3.72 ERA in six appearances, logging 14 strikeouts over 19 1/3 innings pitched.

“I've been able to throw my fastball more for strikes,” Drabek said. “Curve ball I can throw for strikes now. Last year it was more miss than hit.”

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