DUNEDIN — The thick red beard on Jesse Litsch's face is just a novelty for spring training, something new for a new start, but it serves well as a reminder of just how much the Blue Jays have changed since the last time the young right-hander was fully healthy.
In 2008, Litsch was an unlikely 23-year-old phenom, a 24th-round draft pick and former Rays batboy from Pinellas Park who went 13-9 that season with a 3.58 ERA. He was the youngest arm in a rotation that was headlined by established veterans such as Roy Halladay and A.J. Burnett.
But after just two starts in 2009, he needed elbow ligament replacement (Tommy John) surgery on his elbow, ending that season. When he returned last summer, he wasn't himself, going 1-5 in nine starts before being shelved again after tearing the labrum in his right hip.
Now, healthy again after missing nearly all of two seasons, he finds a different clubhouse.
"Right now, everything feels 100 percent, feels a lot better than it did last year," said Litsch, who did all of his rehab work in Dunedin, making the 20-minute commute from his home in Pinellas Park. "It's just a matter of repetition. You have to go out and get in the game, get your feet wet, face hitters. That's what spring training is for. My body feels great."
He has a new manager in John Farrell, a former Indians pitcher whose best year came when he won 14 games as a 25-year-old in 1988; his new pitching coach is Bruce Walton, who had been the Jays' bullpen coach.
Now, Litsch is surrounded by peers in the rotation, both in age and experience. The likely top three starters — Ricky Romero, Brandon Morrow and Brett Cecil — are all between 24 and 26, and rookie Kyle Drabek is 23. Litsch turned 26 on March 9, and his primary competition, Marc Rzepczynski, is also 25. Litsch has just 59 career starts, but that's only two behind Romero for the most on the staff.
"He fits right smack-dab in the middle of it. No one has lost sight from a 13-game (winner) a couple of years ago," Farrell said. "His competitiveness, his ability to make pitches in key spots … he's certainly not afraid. He's very much vying for a spot in this rotation. (I've seen) not only some increased velocity and life, but the shape of the two different breaking balls. He's throwing breaking balls to both sides of the plate."
Walton said with a young, unproven staff, he's excited to see the progress that Litsch has made. This preseason Litsch is 1-0 with a 4.50 ERA in three starts.
"The arm strength is back. The arm speed is back. The location is back, all the things he does well," Walton said. "He has 2 1/2 years of experience under his belt where he's done very well. He's in that group where he helps lead a little bit. He's not the follower anymore. … We're going to see the new Jesse Litsch, who's more like the old Jesse Litsch."
The Blue Jays have the same daunting challenge in the American League East, with the huge payrolls of the Yankees and Red Sox and the continued success of Litsch's hometown Rays. Toronto went 85-77 last season and still finished 10 games out in the wild-card race, so the team will need breaks.
Like getting Litsch back to his old self.
Litsch thought he was back last summer, but now knows he wasn't, missing the velocity on his fastball and the movement on other pitches. Now he's eager to show how much progress he has already made.
In his first outing this spring, he allowed one hit over two scoreless innings against Detroit on Feb. 27. Tuesday against the Phillies he allowed five runs, four earned, on nine hits in 31/3 innings.
"I'm the same guy," Litsch said. "Obviously I want to get back to where I was in 2008. It's going out and knowing you belong here, knowing you're good enough to be here. Confidence is key in this game. If you don't have confidence, it's going to hurt you."