Downs surprised he'll remain closer
Jays reliever expected to be setup man when Ryan returns
TORONTO -- Scott Downs sprinted out of left field on Wednesday afternoon, racing fellow Blue Jays pitcher Brian Tallet back to the team's clubhouse after batting practice. The ritual is one of many developed over the years by the superstitious Downs.
Another has been to avoid doing interviews with the media during a particularly strong stretch on the mound. On Wednesday, sitting at his locker and still out of breath after running off the field, Downs agreed to a brief discussion with a handful of approaching reporters -- on one condition.
"As long as we don't talk about closing," Downs said.
It might have been a new element to Downs' superstitious habits. Instead, it turned out to be a joke. One day after the Blue Jays indicated that he would remain the team's closer after B.J. Ryan returned from the disabled list, Downs admitted to being slightly caught off guard by the decision.
"I might have been a little surprised, but that's not my call," Downs said.
Ryan, who was inked to a five-year contract worth $47 million prior to the 2006 season to be Toronto's closer, is currently rehabbing a left trapezius injury with Class A Dunedin. Inside the Jays' clubhouse, the left-hander has a locker next to Downs and the pair have become good friends over the past few seasons.
It could create for a touchy situation when Ryan is activated from the 15-day DL -- a move that could come before Monday -- but Downs said he isn't really worried.
"It's not difficult," Downs said. "He's got 100 percent confidence in me and I've got 100 percent confidence in him. In my eyes, he's still our closer, and I'm just filling in until he's ready to go."
More to the point, the Blue Jays have more confidence in Downs' ability to be the ninth-inning option for the time being. Prior to being shelved with tightness in his back on April 23, Ryan posted a 11.12 ERA with five walks across 5 2/3 innings and two blown saves in four opportunities. During the spring, he struggled with his pitch velocity and mechanics.
Then, there is the left-handed Downs, who has posted a 2.20 ERA with 20 strikeouts and only one walk in 16 1/3 innings over 15 games this season. Dating back to the start of the 2007 season, all Downs has done is post a 1.99 ERA with 134 strikeouts and 52 walks in 162 games, establishing himself as one of the game's elite setup men in the process.
Blue Jays manager Cito Gaston said it only made sense to hand the closer's job to Downs.
"He's the best we have," Gaston said.
Funny, because Downs has never viewed himself as the type of pitcher who would fit in such a role.
"It's really timing," Downs said. "I don't consider myself a closer. I don't think I ever will. I never would've looked at myself as a setup guy, either. I'm just kind of a guy that's going to go out there and pitch when asked to pitch -- that's what I'm here to do and what I love to do."
After the 2007 season, Downs signed a three-year extension worth $10 million to remain in the Blue Jays' bullpen. The 33-year-old southpaw is under contract for $3.75 million this season and $4 million in 2010. Ryan, on the other hand, is scheduled to earn $10 million this season and next -- the final two years of his contract.
That is an expensive arm to have in an uncertain role. Right now, Gaston isn't sure how Ryan will fit in his bullpen when he comes off the DL. Toronto's manager doesn't believe he'll put the club's former closer into a crucial situation right out of the gates, though.
"We'll see how it works," Gaston said. "I don't know if I'm going to throw him right into the fire -- we'll see what happens. I think we'd like to see what's going on. I'm not going to use him as a mop-up [pitcher], either. I'm not sure if I'll throw him right into a situation that's going to really put some pressure on him. I don't think that'd be fair to him."
Those scenarios will continue to be handed to the superstitious Downs.
"I don't know if my personality goes with any kind of stressful situation," Downs said with a smile. "I'm just going to go out there and do what they've asked me to do. Right now, it's go out and close and pitch and finish games, and we'll see what happens from there."
Jordan Bastian is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.