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Chris Rowley makes case for extended look with Blue Jays

TORONTO — Hours before Saturday’s game, Toronto Blue Jays manager John Gibbons was asked if he had a chance to get to know Chris Rowley, who joined the team at Rogers Centre just one day prior.

“A little bit, not a lot,” responded Gibbons, before asking, “Do you know him?”

If Rowley continues to perform like he did in his start on Saturday against the Pittsburgh Pirates, the Blue Jays skipper will be investing plenty of time into getting acquainted with the right-hander.

Stories like Rowley’s are a definite positive in what’s been a season full of injuries and inconsistency for the 55-61 Blue Jays. Making his major-league debut, the Atlanta native allowed just one run on five hits over 5.1 innings, walking one and striking out three in a 7-2 victory over the Pirates.

Rowley, who became the 12th different pitcher to start a game for the Blue Jays this season, could be in line for an extended look in the rotation. Joe Biagini needs more time to build up as a starter in triple-A, while there’s no timeline for Aaron Sanchez to return to the starting rotation — when he does return, it could be in the bullpen, Gibbons said Saturday.

That means Rowley and Monday’s starter, Nick Tepesch, could be in competition for an open spot in the starting five.

A graduate of West Point, the United States Military Academy, Rowley features quite the interesting story. His pitching career was interrupted for two seasons during which he served in his country’s Armed Forces.

He spent time at the Army Field Artillery School in Oklahoma, where he commanded a five-man tank crew, working on the artillery range. As well, Rowley was stationed in Bulgaria and Romania.

Rowley, who turns 27 on Monday, missed two years of pro ball while serving, but has progressed quickly since his return. He enjoyed a strong season for class-A Dunedin in 2016 and put up impressive numbers for double-A New Hampshire and triple-A Buffalo this year.

He had no trouble replicating those results Saturday, inducing plenty of swings and misses from Pirates hitters in the early going with strong movement on his pitches. Relying heavily on his two-seam fastball and slider, Rowley worked quickly and was effective with velocity that ranged from 81 to 90.5 mph.

He retired the side in the opening frame and gave up his first hit in the second inning when Pirates first baseman Josh Bell smoked a triple to left-centre field and later scored on a Jordy Mercer single up the middle to tie the game at 1-1. Rowley, who appeared extremely poised throughout the outing, got the next hitter, John Jaso, to ground out and cruised from there until the sixth inning.

After television cameras caught Rowley looking repeatedly at his finger while exiting the field in the fifth, he looked like a different pitcher in the sixth inning. He got Adam Frazier to fly out to left field to open the inning, before allowing a single to Josh Harrison and issuing his only walk of the afternoon to Bell.

Rowley was then removed from the game, receiving a standing ovation from the crowd.

Right-hander Dominic Leone came on to relieve him and escaped the jam. Aaron Loup, Ryan Tepera and Leonel Campos helped preserve the win for Rowley, who got support from the Blue Jays offence.

Jose Bautista walked in the first inning, then went first to third on a Justin Smoak single to right field, before scoring on a fielder’s choice grounder by Steve Pearce.

In the second, Bautista drew a walk on a close, full-count pitch to load the bases for Josh Donaldson, who also walked to earn an RBI and give Toronto a 2-1 lead. The Blue Jays tacked on more runs in the fifth when pinch-hitter Kendrys Morales grounded into a fielder’s choice that forced an error and plated two runs. Toronto added three runs in the seventh, helped in part by an error from Pirates third baseman Harrison.

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August 12, 2017

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