TORONTO -- The biggest question surrounding Dustin McGowan's transition to the starting rotation was whether he would be able to pitch deep into games, and so far the results haven't been what the Blue Jays were hoping for.
A trend has emerged during the first month of the season that has seen McGowan struggle toward the middle of almost every start. Perhaps it shouldn't come as a surprise considering McGowan hasn't been a full-time starter since 2008 and didn't have a full Spring Training, but the overall upside has yet to surface.
The problems continued on Wednesday night as McGowan was staked to an early five-run lead, but once again appeared to hit a wall around the fifth inning. The end result was a 10-8 loss to the Orioles in front of 15,202 fans at Rogers Centre.
"Maybe a little bit," McGowan admitted when asked after the game whether fatigue was playing a role in his starts. "I do seem to at 60 pitches, I kind of seem to be falling backwards a little bit, I guess you could say. But I feel good, my arm feels great, it's just sometimes it seems like the ball is not coming out quite right after 60-65 pitches."
McGowan was always facing an uphill battle in his quest for a permanent job in the starting rotation. He made a handful of starts at the end of 2011, but hasn't been a regular contributor in that role since 2008 because of several major surgeries on his right shoulder.
The 32-year-old returned from injury last season to settle into a bullpen role. He spent the offseason talking about his desire to start, and while the Blue Jays claimed all along McGowan was going to get a chance, he entered camp this spring as an extreme long shot. It wasn't until J.A. Happ, Esmil Rogers, Marcus Stroman and to a lesser extent Todd Redmond struggled during Spring Training that McGowan officially entered the mix.
The problem is that McGowan also didn't begin getting stretched out as a starter until mid-March. An illness cost him some time before that and a push from the organization didn't come until after the club came up short in its pursuit of free agent Ervin Santana. That left McGowan with just a few starts to get ready for the regular season and the club knew all along that it was going to have to be patient with McGowan early on.
McGowan is now four starts into his 2014 campaign and has recorded an out in the fifth inning during just one outing. The fact that he is still feeling fatigue around the 60-pitch mark is rather alarming and is something that will need to be fixed almost immediately if McGowan wants to remain a starter. Otherwise it's likely the Blue Jays will revisit the possibility of going with Happ, Rogers, Redmond or Stroman.
"The body just feels like it runs out of steam a little bit," McGowan conceded. "I shouldn't be feeling that, I should be at the point where I can go 90-100, especially the way my arm feels. It feels great."
McGowan received some early breathing room on Wednesday night when Toronto posted six runs in the second inning vs. right-hander Chris Tillman. Brett Lawrie had a three-run homer, while Jose Reyes added a two-run shot of his own as the Blue Jays sent 11 batters to the plate.
The quick start looked like it would allow Toronto to cruise the rest of the way, but little by little the Orioles began chipping away at McGowan. There were two runs in the third inning on a home run by Nelson Cruz and an RBI single by Nick Markakis before the outing really unraveled in the fifth.
Despite facing the bottom of Baltimore's order, McGowan loaded the bases with nobody out and forced manager John Gibbons to make a move for the bullpen. Right-hander Todd Redmond entered and promptly surrendered a grand slam to Cruz. Before the inning came to an end, Redmond also allowed an RBI double to Matt Wieters and a sacrifice fly to J.J. Hardy as the Orioles took a 9-6 lead.
McGowan has allowed 13 runs in 17 innings (6.88 ERA) this season and appears to be having an increasing amount of difficulty keeping the ball down in the zone as his outings progress.
"I think the quality is still there, it just goes down to execution," Blue Jays catcher Dioner Navarro said. "Obviously, that's not the way he wanted to pitch, but it's going to be up to whoever to figure out. I think he was throwing the ball well, he was in the strike zone and then all of a sudden we kind of went away from the game plan and it hurt us big."
Even after all of that, the Blue Jays did have a chance to get back into the game. Second baseman Ryan Goins chipped away at the Orioles' lead with a solo home run in the sixth and a pinch-hit RBI single by Josh Thole in the seventh got Toronto within two. Reyes had a chance to cut the lead even further, but he struck out with a pair of runners on.
The final push came in the ninth when Toronto loaded the bases with one out vs Orioles closer Tommy Hunter. Infielder Jonathan Diaz came to the plate with the tying run on second base but grounded into a double play to end the game. It was a bitter end to a bitter defeat.
"It's very rare you get 16 hits no errors and you don't win the game, put it that way," Gibbons said.