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Toronto Blue Jays starting pitcher Ricky Romero throws a pitch against the Baltimore Orioles during first inning AL action in Toronto on Sunday, May 30, 2010. (NATHAN DENETTE/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Toronto Blue Jays starting pitcher Ricky Romero throws a pitch against the Baltimore Orioles during first inning AL action in Toronto on Sunday, May 30, 2010. (NATHAN DENETTE/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Jeff Blair

Toronto's pitching not yet in Tampa's league, but blueprint is there Add to ...

President and chief executive officer Paul Beeston's request was simple: to refrain from calling the Toronto Blue Jays the 'Bay Street Bombers.' Watch the home runs, but leave the nickname stuff alone - at least until after the itchy, G-20 trigger-fingers leave town. Besides, with the Tampa Bay Rays in town, it pays to talk about pitching. Matt Garza on Monday night. Jeff Niemann (5-0, 2.37) on Tuesday, and David Price (7-2, 2.56) on Wednesday. Crikey.

The Rays, who played the first of three games at the Rogers Centre Monday, hit the 50-game mark with five pitchers with at least five wins. Only three other teams have done that in the past 25 years, and all went on to the World Series, with the 1986 New York Mets winning the world title. The Rays went into action on Sunday with four pitchers sporting earned run averages under 3.00 - the first American League team to be able to boast of that on May 30 since the 1981 Oakland Athletics.

That brought a smile to the face of Rick Langford, the Blue Jays bullpen coach who was part of that 1981 Athletics squad that included the likes of Mike Norris, Steve McCatty, Matt Keough and Brian Kingman. Manager Billy Martin shredded those arms but Langford finished with 18 complete games that season - after completing 28 the season before.

The Blue Jays young starters do not yet have the reputation of the Rays, who have the second-youngest staff in the Majors behind only the Detroit Tigers. But Ricky Romero, Brett Cecil and Monday's starter, Brandon Morrow, are no less significant for the future of the Blue Jays. The idea's simple: go with cost-effective young starters, add veteran relievers and pay money for position players. Mix … and pray. "A great formula, with the young starters and a veteran bullpen," intoned Rays manager Joe Maddon.

Langford has been with the Blue Jays since 1996 in a variety of minor league capacities, and had an all-too brief stint as Jim Fregosi's pitching coach. As a former roving pitcher instructor and pitching coach at Single-A Dunedin for three seasons, he knows more about the Blue Jays young pitchers than they know about themselves. Which makes him a good touchstone for a group of starters who had a 22-14 record and a cumulative earned-run average of 4.32 going into Monday - not far off from 2009's 21-16, 4.17 mark when Roy Halladay was still here.

So much good, young pitching gets baseball people thinking. Texas Rangers president Nolan Ryan wants to blow up pitch-counts and make young starters go deeper into games - a move of economic as well as philosophical significance.

"Nolan's made up his mind about it, but if you look at him, personally, that's how he did it," said Langford. "Me, personally? I finished 22 consecutive complete games in the majors and I rarely threw more than 100-110 pitches. I was a sinker-slider guy. Got them to put the ball in play. Two really different animals, you know?"

Langford uses the word "subtleties" to describe the underpinnings of the Blue Jays' organizational pitching philosophy. Manager Cito Gaston and pitching coach Bruce Walton call the tune in the majors, while minor league pitching co-ordinator Dane Johnson makes it work in the minors, where Blue Jays minor leaguers are given general pitch limits of 100 in Double-A and lower; 110 and more in Triple-A. The operative number is 21 - as in 21 outs. Do that, and the game is turned over to the set-up man. Job done.

"There are two things we want you to do in our organization: develop a great change-up, because you have to have one to pitch in the majors, and show us how professional you are," said Langford. "Can you shut an inning down? When you're in trouble, can I visibly see your game going the other way, or can I see you standing tall, picking signs up and making quality pitches."

Speaking of which: did the Blue Jays kidnap Halladay some time between Sunday and Monday and put him in Brandon Morrow's jersey? Morrow has the best pure stuff on the Blue Jays, but he relied on ground balls and good defence Monday, implementing a slide-step that clearly surprised the Rays base runners and using a reworked delivery, keeping his glove at the waist out of the stretch. It would be nice if Morrow remembered to tip his cap the next time he gets a standing ovation, even if it is only from 11,355 fans. But if this kid gets it … oh my. Pitching like that lasts longer than bombs-away hitting - although the homers sure are fun, no?

 

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