Ferguson: Recalling memorable Blue Jays pitching debuts

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Scott Ferguson
7/25/2014 7:36:48 PM
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It's amazing how the outlook on the Blue Jays has changed, and how energized the fan base has become over the past 48 hours. And it's all due to the performances of two rookie right handers.

Aaron Sanchez delivered two electrifying perfect innings of relief in the Jays' 6-4 win over Boston in his Major League debut on Wednesday night. Then his good buddy Marcus Stroman followed that up with six no-hit innings against the Bosox Thursday afternoon and went seven innings of one-hit ball overall in Toronto's 8-0 victory that gave them the series three out of four. Suddenly the Jays look like a threat in the AL East again as they head out on a crucial 10-game, three-city road swing through New York, Boston, and Houston.

Reflecting back on Sanchez's performance, I decided to look back at the first Major League appearances of four of Toronto's top homegrown starting pitchers and a closer who started elsewhere, but blossomed into a star with the Blue Jays.

Lefty Jimmy Key debuted with the Jays on April 6, 1984 at Anaheim. He was like Sanchez, broken in as a reliever with a starting role as the near term goal. That day in Anaheim starter Doyle Alexander lasted only four and a third innings. One reliever later Key entered the game with an 8-5 lead. He proceeded to pitch three and a third near flawless innings and the Jays went on to win 11-5. Key was awarded his first major league victory because the scorer ruled him to have been the most effective Jays pitcher on the day, which he certainly was. The following year, Key made it into the starting rotation and went on to have a stellar career with the Blue Jays, Yankees and Orioles. It's a shame he couldn't have been a Blue Jays lifer. He was 22 years and 350 days old when he made his first appearance for the Blue Jays.

Chris Carpenter was even younger when he first took to the mound for the Jays on May 12, 1997 at the Metrodome in Minneapolis. He was just 22 years and 15 days old when he faced the Minnesota Twins. Carpenter started and got rocked. He only lasted three innings, giving up eight hits and seven runs, five of those earned. He also walked three and struck out five. The Twins pounded out 20 hits on that day and hammered the Jays 12-2. Ironically, former Jays catcher Greg Myers was behind the plate for the Twins, and went 4 for 5 with two runs batted in. Carpenter wasn't fazed by that humbling beginning. He was a solid contributor to the Jays rotation until he left for St. Louis as a free agent. There, he developed into a star and won a couple of World Series titles.

Dave Stieb was the Blue Jays' first star pitcher. His first start, like that of Carpenter, was nothing to write home about. The converted outfielder took to the mound as a Blue Jay for the first time on June 29, 1979. He was only 21 years and 342 days old when he faced Baltimore at old Memorial Stadium.

His catcher that day was Bob Davis. Stieb pitched pretty well through five innings, gave up just three runs and was locked in a fairly tight pitcher's duel with O's lefty Scott McGregor. But it all came undone for Stieb in the bottom of the 6th, when third baseman Doug DeCinces touched him for a two-run homer and the "Big Bopper" Lee May followed with a solo shot. Stieb was done after six and the Orioles won the game 6-1 in a tidy one hour and 56 minutes.

Stieb went on to finish 8-8 that season with 4.31 ERA. He pitched 129.1 innings, striking out 52 and walking 48 on a bad Blue Jays team. That was only the beginning though for "Sir David" as the late great Jim Hunt dubbed him. He went on to become arguably the best homegrown pitcher in Blue Jays history alongside Roy Halladay.

"Doc" Halladay, who retired as a Blue Jay back in the spring, debuted on September 20, 1998 at Tropicana Field against Tampa Bay. I was in the ballpark that night, but honestly remember very little about it, or the significance of it being Halladay's first game. The Jays were on the third leg of an 11-game, four-city trip that would see them go 4-7 and fall out of contention in the AL East. Halladay may have even been given the start, because the team was out of it.

Roy was 21 years and 129 days old, the youngest of the four starters I've mentioned. He went five innings and allowed eight hits, three runs - two earned - walked two and struck out five. The Jays ultimately won 7-5 in 12 innings, their only victory in that series as I recall.

The funny thing about that game is the reliever who picked up Halladay that night was none other than Dave Stieb, who made a one-year comeback in 1998 as a reliever and spot starter. It was his second-last Major League appearance. He went 2.2 innings, giving up one unearned run on two hits while walking two and striking out three. It was the only time the two greatest homegrown starting pitchers appeared in the same game for the Blue Jays.

Most fans remember Halladay's second start with crystal clear clarity. On September 27 at the then-SkyDome Halladay pitched a complete game one-hitter versus Detroit. Pinch hitter Bobby Higginson slammed a home run to left-centre with two out in the top of the ninth to ruin the no-hit bid. Halladay and the Jays hung on to win 2-1.

Though he didn't come up through the Blue Jays organization, I still believe "the Terminator" Tom Henke had the most hyped and anticipated debut in Blue Jays history. He was the closer the Blue Jays needed to get over the top in 1985. His first four years in the Texas organization hadn't panned out and the Jays got him as compensation for losing veteran DH Cliff Johnson to the Rangers as a free agent.

Henke started the year at Triple-A Syracuse and his legend grew with every save. He finally was called up when it became clear Bill Caudill wasn't the answer in short relief.

Henke's first appearance came on July 29 at Baltimore. Henke took over from Jimmy Key to start the 9th in a 3-3 tie in front of a jam-packed house of 41,599. He mowed down the O's in the 9th, but walked a batter in the 10th. With two down Henke got Cal Ripken Jr. to fly out to Jesse Barfield, who was playing centre in one of the deepest parts of the park. After a sigh of relief, Henke joined the celebration as he picked up the win in his first Major League appearance. The Jays went 36-25 the rest of the way with Henke as the closer. They set a franchise record with 99 wins and made it to the post-season for the first time.

We'll find out over the next few years if Stroman and Sanchez will write their own glorious chapters in Blue Jays history. After what they've shown this week I can't see either one being traded before next week's July 31 non-waiver deadline.

Dave Stieb (Photo: Mitchell Layton/Getty Images)

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(Photo: Mitchell Layton/Getty Images)
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