LAKE BUENA VISTA, Florida - Esmil Rogers is in the major leagues because his best friend punched him in the face. Three times.
The year was 2006, the city was Casper, Wyoming and the best friend was – and still is – current Orioles reliever Pedro Strop. Both were youngsters in the Rockies' system and both were former shortstops turned pitchers. Rogers, then 21 years old, was coming off a difficult year in Rookie Ball, his first on the mound. He was ready to quit. In tears, he packed his bags for home and that's when roommate Strop got in his face.
"He said, 'How am I going to let you go home when you throw 96 or 97 mph, not too many baseball players throw like that,'" said Rogers. "After that he called my family."
Well, Strop didn't call Rogers' family immediately afterward. First, a shoving match ensued. Rogers was trying to get out the door and Strop punched him in the face three times, leaving Rogers with a black eye.
"We've got unbelievable communication," said Rogers, acknowledging the strangeness of the fistfight with Strop. "We're still like brothers."
So close are they, in fact, Strop named his son after Rogers and Rogers is the boy's godfather.
Rogers is the youngest of three baseball playing boys. Omar, the oldest, is now a scout for the St. Louis Cardinals; Edward plays in the Mexican League. Rogers says his father, Danilo, could hold his own in his younger days. Danilo played first base and third base in the Dominican League.
After the incident with Strop, Rogers called home. But he didn't speak to Danilo or either of his two brothers. It was his mom on the other end. Exasperated that her son would walk away from baseball – he'd never worked a "real job" in his life – she told him to push through the hard times.
The bumps on the road to Toronto didn't end in Casper. Rogers pitched, and struggled, in parts of four seasons for Colorado before the Indians claimed him on waivers last June. He turned around his career in Cleveland with a 3.06 ERA in 44 appearances, striking out 54 in 53 innings. Rogers' power arm is what attracted the Blue Jays, who shipped Mike Aviles and Yan Gomes to the Indians on November 3.
"Last year was really important for me, it was a big year for me because the Colorado organization (designated me) for assignment," said Rogers. "A lot of players go on assignment and don't get picked up. Sometimes you've got one opportunity, sometimes you don't have any opportunity. I think this is my last opportunity and I have to do everything I can do to be in this game for a long time. I've been close to being out of this game already and I don't want to pass that moment anymore."
Rogers mixes a slider with his fastball, a breaking pitch he says he can throw no matter the count. A chance meeting with his hero, Pedro Martinez, in 2008 changed his perspective on pitching.
"He told me, 'you have to throw inside,'" said Rogers, who also was admonished by Martinez to meticulously study video of opposing hitters.
Aware of the Blue Jays history with Dominican players, Rogers was happy to come to Toronto. Shortly after he was acquired, Jose Reyes and Emilio Bonifacio came over from Miami and Melky Cabrera was signed as a free agent. He looks around the locker room, sees so many of his countrymen and feels he's in the right place.
"It surprised me because I've never played with so many Dominican guys," said Rogers. "In Colorado we maybe had two or three Dominican players. Coming to spring training after hearing what happened with the trade I said, 'Oh my God there's going to be so many Dominican players we're going to be like a family over there.' Right now I'm feeling like I'm at my house. I just got traded here, and I don't think about anything different, I just think about getting people out."
- Josh Johnson looked in mid-season form on Friday in Lake Buena Vista, retiring all 11 batters he faced in 3.2 innings of work. Johnson struck out five Braves. The Blue Jays beat Atlanta 7-1.
"Finally got to make a start and get a routine and remember the routine, first of all," said Johnson, who'd followed R.A. Dickey for his first two appearances of the spring. "I finally was able to slow down, take my time and stay back in my delivery and let everything come naturally."
Johnson says he found himself too "amped up" pitching, essentially, in relief.
- Anthony Gose keyed the Blue Jays offence on Friday. Gose went 3-for-4 with a home run, two RBI, four runs scored and two stolen bases.
- The Blue Jays return to Dunedin for a set of weekend home games, Saturday versus Detroit and Sunday against the Yankees.
Ricky Romero gets the start Saturday and is scheduled to pitch three innings on a 45-pitch limit.
Darren Oliver, Aaron Loup and Brad Lincoln are among others expected to pitch in the game.
Doug Fister gets the start for the Tigers.