DUNEDIN, FLA. — Finally, following 16 days of forced inactivity, came the sight of the Blue Jays’ apparent closer Brett Cecil on a mound, working a bullpen. The left-hander threw 10 pitches, plus a couple under the watchful eye of pitching coach Pete Walker. Recall that he had not thrown off a mound since Feb. 28 when, returning from a bout with the flu, he believes he pushed himself too hard too soon. The result was left shoulder inflammation for which he received daily treatment.
“Pete had to actually ask me if I was (finished) for the day,” Cecil said of his feel-good bullpen outing. “I told him, ‘No, give me one or two more.’ I wanted to throw (in the bullpen Friday) because it felt good, but I just told myself, ‘No, it’s spring training.’ It’s not the middle of the season, so there’s no problem taking it slow and taking another day, repeating what I did yesterday and just throwing a few off the mound today — get a real bullpen in (Sunday).”
Of course, given recent team history, it wasn’t ever time for closer panic. Recall last year’s closer, Casey Janssen, had a similarly shortened spring and went on to have a successful first half. Cecil talked about the plan for his reintegration moving down the road towards opening day.
“Tentatively the schedule is to throw a ’pen (Sunday), throw a ’pen Wednesday and then a game Saturday, if I remember correctly,” Cecil said. “As far as taking it slow, yeah. The one thing I don’t want to do that I really have to focus on is not worrying about the past injury, and try to do something different to compensate and maybe getting injured then, because that’s only going to make things worse, whether it becomes a shoulder again or it becomes a different problem.”
On that schedule for the remainder of the Florida part of spring training, Cecil could log six or seven appearances, including a back-to-back to be ready for the season.
As for Saturday’s game, what was supposed to be the most interesting sidelight of the Blue Jays’ date with the Yankees — that ended in a 1-0 Toronto victory — was the first visit of Alex Rodriguez to Florida Auto Exchange Stadium since 2013. But the Yankees took batting practice at home in Tampa and didn’t bus over and arrive until an hour before game time.
There were catcalls and mocking chants for A-Rod from the sellout crowd, but the reaction was tame. Playing third base, he struck out in the second and singled in the fourth against Daniel Norris, who, following the injury to Marcus Stroman, finds himself a clear front-runner for a spot in the starting rotation. As such, it was important for the results to improve over his last outing in Lakeland. On this day, he pitched 3 1/3 shutout innings, allowing three hits with a walk and four strikeouts.
It was the first time Norris and catcher Russell Martin had worked together in a game. Norris was excited about the chemistry that he felt with his new receiver.
“He helps with everything; he’s really good,” Norris said. “I go out there and I’m very competitive and he’s very competitive. It’s just a lot of competing. That’s a recipe for a lot of fun. Even on days like today where I was not necessarily as sharp as I’d like to be, he’s still helping me out there — focus, telling me to breathe a little bit. I get a little anxious to get out there and throw another pitch. That’s the luxury of having a guy like that behind the plate.”
Who would have thought that breathing was a key to pitching? But wait, is there room for such excess and delays within MLB’s new pace-of-play rules? Martin explained.
“He’s a kid that has an abundance of energy out there,” Martin said of Norris. “Pitching coach Pete was telling me even before he went out there, he’s a kid that gets excited, gets amped and then he tends to let his emotions take over. I’m a big believer that breathing helps you be in control of your emotions out there. So I just tell him to keep breathing, take his time and just stay under control on the mound.”
Now with Norris and young Aaron Sanchez both needed to round out the Jays’ rotation, it seems Cecil has the clear path to the back end of the bullpen, pitching the ninth inning while holding a lead.
Even though until now his major-league roles have been as a starter, setup man and lefty specialist, the 28-year-old has experience as a closer at the University of Maryland before the Jays drafted him. But unlike in college when he was a reluctant bullpen ace, this time he’s enthused.
“I didn’t want to close when I was in college,” Cecil recalled. “I actually went into the pitching coach’s office and respectfully said, don’t you think you need somebody to get you to the eighth inning, ninth inning with a lead, as opposed to worrying about the ninth inning? He just said, ‘Let me worry about that.’ Sure enough, I absolutely loved it. Just coming into a situation, it’s almost unexplainable.
“After that first save, I said to hell with starting. There’s a special mentality to have (when you’re) pitching at the back end of the bullpen. I have that and that’s how I’ve prepared myself the last two years. It’s going to remain the same this year.”