PITTSBURGH -- Dustin McGowan lobbied hard all offseason for an opportunity to start, and now that he has it, the veteran right-hander is not about to let it go without a fight.
McGowan's spot in the rotation appeared in jeopardy just one week ago, but the talk has quieted down at least for now following two impressive starts. When his back was against the wall, McGowan battled back, and he might have even bought himself a little bit of breathing room.
The latest example of McGowan's turnaround came Sunday afternoon, when he allowed just one run over a season-high seven innings to help the Blue Jays avoid a three-game sweep with a 7-2 victory over the Pirates at PNC Park.
"It was good to get a win for this team," the soft-spoken McGowan said afterward. "It's something that we needed and maybe it will give us a little boost going forward."
McGowan's spot in the rotation came into question following his fourth start of the season. He allowed six runs over four innings against the Orioles on April 23 and acknowledged after the game that he had been getting fatigued around the 60-pitch mark during each of his starts.
That raised a lot of red flags for a pitcher who spent all of last season in the bullpen. Manager John Gibbons called McGowan into his office the next day, and the two cleared the air about the pitcher's overall health, stamina and what needed to be done going forward.
Even though the Blue Jays responded by announcing McGowan would still make his next scheduled start, there did not appear to be much confidence from within. The organization conveniently decided to move prospect Marcus Stroman's start in Triple-A back a couple of days to line up perfectly with McGowan's turn through the rotation.
The line of thinking was that McGowan had one last opportunity to prove himself. His apparent make-or-break start came on April 29 in Kansas City, and he responded by allowing just two earned runs over six innings. That bought him another outing, but there was still plenty of pressure in Pittsburgh, especially because the heir-apparent, Stroman, was called up prior to the game.
McGowan once again responded in a positive manner. He allowed just three hits and three walks while striking out five and tossing a season-high 101 pitches. The only real difficulty he faced on Sunday afternoon came in the first inning, when he allowed a leadoff triple, but after that he settled down and enjoyed his best start of the year. It was enough to earn his second win of the season, and while doing so he made a clear statement to the organization on where he believes he belongs.
"He's definitely shown me something," Gibbons said after Sunday's game.
McGowan has now recorded back-to-back quality starts while allowing just three earned runs over his past 13 innings. The recent turnaround has coincided with his decision to start wearing an insulin pump during his outings.
The pump is designed to help regulate a person's blood sugar level. McGowan has type 1 diabetes, and while he has had it under control for most of his life, he began to experience difficulty in a starter's role. A regular blood sugar level is around the 120 mg/deciliter mark, but during McGowan's starts earlier this season he noticed his had spiked to more than 300.
That could help explain why he was becoming fatigued so early in his previous starts. The pump seemed to work in Kansas City, and while the in-game readings were not quite ideal in Pittsburgh, he was still able to get the job done.
"My blood sugar was actually up again today, but I felt fine," McGowan said. "I wouldn't say I got stronger, I would say I evened out.
"My blood sugar still gets erratic sometimes, but that's part of the game for me. The adrenaline going and everything, it does what it wants to do, and I can't control it sometimes."
McGowan on Sunday was provided with some early run support as the Blue Jays' offense continued its recent hot streak. Colby Rasmus led the way with the fourth grand slam of his career, while Melky Cabrera had a three-hit afternoon, including his sixth homer of the year, a two-run blast.
Jose Bautista saw his career-high hit streak come to an end at 13 games, but he walked twice. The veteran outfielder has reached base in each of Toronto's 31 games, which is the longest streak in the Majors to begin a year since Joey Votto did it 33 times in 2011.
Toronto has scored at least five runs in seven of its past eight games. Dating back to April 20, the Blue Jays have averaged 5.62 runs a game while hitting .307 (39-for-127) with runners in scoring position and hitting a total of 26 doubles and 19 homers.
Even with that consistent production, Toronto has managed to go just 4-9 over that same span of games, including a 2-4 mark on its current road stretch.
"It definitely stinks," Rasmus said of the record. "But we've been putting some runs on the board, and that's all we can do as far as the offensive side, and we feel like we've been playing pretty good.
"We can't point any fingers at anybody, because at any given time we could get [cold], ... so we just have to come in every day relaxed, positive and try to win a ballgame."