SARASOTA, Fla. -- With about a month to go before Baltimore breaks camp, there's plenty of time for the starting rotation competition, which figures to be just the fifth and final spot, to take form.
Still, it was an encouraging sign on Tuesday for the organization to see new Orioles pitcher Jair Jurrjens -- who struggled mightily in his previous outing -- look far more comfortable and get favorable results against the Blue Jays' tough middle-of-the-order.
"There's been a lot of improvement from Day One," pitching coach Rick Adair said of Jurrjens, who took a shutout into his third inning before a two-out walk led to three runs in the fifth.
"He's got a ways to go from what he was before he had the [right] knee problems. He's getting closer, but I don't think he's anywhere near what he's going to be. He's starting to get through some pitches a little better. You're seeing a little more finish down in the strike zone when he's right."
Jurrjens, who followed starter Steve Johnson's two innings, was pleased with how he was able to throw his breaking pitch for a strike, and felt he addressed some of the mechanical issues that hampered his last start. The right-hander recorded just three outs last Thursday against the Twins, and said afterward that the three-run outing was a result of being "out of whack" with a lot of things.
"Last year at this moment, I wasn't even breaking 90 [mph]," said Jurrjens, whose signing with the Orioles was held up, and altered significantly, due to concerns over the health of his knee. "This [outing on Tuesday] is a big step for me. I'm seeing the first couple of sliders I throw, see them buckle some knees. And it's real encouraging to keep working. I'm getting closer and closer to where I'm supposed to be."
"He's still kind of getting his feet on the ground a little bit," manager Buck Showalter said after Tuesday's 6-6 tie. "But you can see flashes of why [Jurrjens has] had success.
"I thought he was a little more like himself [today]. But it's been a while for him. So, you can't expect it to come overnight."
Jurrjens had a 1-2-3 third inning and pitched out of a leadoff walk in the fourth, picking up his second strikeout with an inning-ending punchout of Andy LaRoche. Mike McCoy's double-play ball erased a leadoff single in the fifth-inning, but Jurrjens walked Anthony Gose to keep Toronto's threat going. The Blue Jays tallied four hits after that, scoring a trio of runs and chasing Jurrjens from the game one out short of the intended three-inning mark.
Still, Jurrjens was relatively pleased with how Tuesday went, with his misses mostly down in the zone and Toronto connecting for just one extra-base hit. And, as Adair noted, when everything syncs up, Jurrjens' ball has a impressive sink.
"I think it's more physical than anything," Adair said when asked if Jurrjens biggest hurdle is mental or physical. "He doesn't get as much drive and torque out of his back knee as he used to. He used to have some type of explosion out of his, and even his position is not the same. So, once he gets there, his arm is fine. I think he is just trying to get back to the same position it was in with Atlanta those good years."
With a spot in the Orioles' rotation on the line, Jurrjens is trying to get there as quickly as possible. The O's have a dozen potential starters in Major League camp and while Jurrjens will have the benefit of a longer-than-usual Spring Training -- thanks to the World Baseball Classic -- Tuesday's outing can be seen as a step in the right direction.
"He's going to get an opportunity," Showalter said. "And it's more than March whatever-it-is. So, he will keep seeing if he can get back to the form that made him so successful."
Johnson is one of the rotational hopefuls competing with Jurrjens and he allowed two runs on two hits -- including a solo homer -- and a walk. The right-hander started with five consecutive balls, which is unusual considering Johnson made a living off command in an impressive rookie campaign last year.
"That's who I am," Johnson said of being a control-first pitcher. "I'm not really too worried about it, being however many innings I have in camp. It's not many. There's a lot of time for the season to start. It comes around. It's just, right now I feel good and I'm letting the ball go pretty good. It's just the height of the ball, it's not down enough right now. I just left the ball up a lot today."
Brittany Ghiroli is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, Britt's Bird Watch, and follow her on Twitter @britt_ghiroli. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.Less