DUNEDIN, Fla. -- In the Orioles’ attempt to remold right-hander Jair Jurrjens into his past All-Star form, progress comes in small phases.
The Orioles have some time — and they’re proving to have patience — especially considering spring training is longer this season.
And while Jurrjens’ final line in Tuesday afternoon’s 6-6 tie with the Toronto Blue Jays wasn’t pretty — he allowed three runs on five hits and two walks with two strikeouts in 2 2/3 innings — it was another step forward as he tries to build strength in his surgically repaired right knee.
“He’s getting there,” Orioles pitching coach Rick Adair said. “He’s still a ways away from what he was before he had the 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.”
In his previous spring appearance Thursday against the Minnesota Twins in Fort Myers, the 27-year-old Jurrjens lasted just one inning and threw only 13 of his 34 pitches for strikes.
On Tuesday, Jurrjens was one pitch away from completing three scoreless innings against a lineup full of Blue Jays starters. But when Jurrjens issued a two-out, full-count walk to Anthony Gose in the fifth inning, the flood gates opened. After walking Gose, Jurrjens allowed four straight hits, beginning with an RBI triple by Emilio Bonifacio that hugged the right-field line. Toronto’s three-run rally that forced Jurrjens from the game before the end of the inning.
“I felt the ball was coming out really good,” Jurrjens said. “Just the walks have been a problem for me, especially with two outs. When you walk a guy with two outs, [it seems] he’s going to come around to score somehow.”
While their expectations are tempered, the Orioles are beginning to see signs of the pitcher who was a National League All-Star with the Atlanta Braves in 2011, when he started 12-3 with a 1.87 ERA before unraveling.
“He’s still kind of getting his feet on the ground a little bit,” Orioles manager Buck Showalter said. “But you can see flashes of why he’s had success.”
Jurrjens is one of 13 starting rotation candidates this spring. And as a player signed to a minor-league deal, he’s an underdog. But he looked confident Tuesday, throwing a variety of pitches for the first time this spring. He was also more aggressive in the strike zone.
“With this outing, I feel really good about it,” Jurrjens said. “My slider was throwing for a strike. I was getting swings on it, and I was getting outs on it. My changeup is getting back. … I’m throwing [it] more for a strike. I’m throwing my breaking ball for a strike. That’s the thing I wanted to do today, and that’s what I did. I just need to keep working and keep bearing down.”
Both Jurrjens and the Orioles agree that his biggest obstacle is physical, mainly building the strength in his right leg, which is the catalyst for his power on the mound.
“He [still] favors his knee,” Adair said. “He doesn’t get as much drive and torque out of his back knee at he used to. He used to have some type of explosion out of his [knee] and even the position isn’t the same. So once he gets there, his arm is fine. I think he’s just trying to get back to the same position he was in back in Atlanta.”
Jurrjens, whose average fastball velocity has diminished since the 2011 season (from 91.1 mph to 88.6 mph) said he feels like his fastball is coming back.
“Last year at this moment, I wasn’t even breaking 90 [mph],” he said. “This is a really big step for me. Seeing the first couple of sliders I threw and seeing it buckle some knees, it really encourages me to keep working. I’m getting closer and closer to where I’m supposed to be.”
Said Showalter: “I thought he was a little more like himself. But it’s been a while for him. So you can’t expect it to come overnight.”