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Blue Jays pitcher Drew Hutchinson’s spring ends with hit to head

Toronto Blue Jays starting pitcher Drew Hutchison throws a pitch during the first inning against the Tampa Bay Rays in a spring training game in Port Charlotte, Fla., on Sunday.

Kim Klement/USA Today Sports

Drew Hutchison absorbed more than a few body blows during a helter-skelter 2015 season.

Hutchison was the Toronto Blue Jays opening day starter last year, but threw poorly on the road and was even exiled to Triple A at one point late in the season.

He wasn't even on the Blue Jays playoff roster.

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During a solid spring campaign that continued on Sunday afternoon at windswept Charlotte Sports Park, Hutchison was fortunate to escape injury after an errant throw by a teammate struck him in the head.

It was the only downside to an otherwise solid afternoon as the right-hander continues to stake his claim for the fifth and final opening on the Blue Jays rotation with the start of the regular season less than a week away.

Hutchison went a solid four innings against the Tampa Bay Rays and allowed one run off one hit as the Blue Jays cruised to a mistake-filled 7-3 victory over the Rays in Grapefruit League action.

Hutchison, with his sixth start of the spring, continues to make things difficult for the Toronto decision makers, who will have to choose among Hutchison, Gavin Floyd and Aaron Sanchez, the man seen as the front-runner, to be the final piece to the puzzle.

Manager John Gibbons, whose team is now 16-5 this spring, said he expects that call will be made in a day or two with the regular season set to begin next Sunday against the Rays at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg.

"He's had a good spring," Gibbons said of Hutchison. "He came into camp and worked on commanding the baseball a little bit better. He's done a nice job."

And Hutchison is just happy he can still recall it all after a frightening incident in the bottom of the fifth inning that began with a walk to Tampa Bays' Brad Miller.

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"That's what you get for being dumb, walking the leadoff guy," Hutchison said ruefully.

With Steven Souza Jr. at the plate, Miller had his sights set on stealing second base and was off and running on the pitch.

Hutchison went into a crouch, as pitchers will do knowing a throw over the mound to second is forthcoming.

But the relay from Toronto catcher A.J. Jimenez was a bit low and the ball struck the pitcher in the back of the head.

Jimenez is known for his good arm and the ball was travelling with such a velocity that it ricocheted off Hutchison's noggin and rolled all the way out into left field.

Hutchison jumped right up after the incident, seemingly unhurt.

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But after a meeting at the mound with trainers and Gibbons the decision was made to take him out of the game as a precaution.

"He's got a hard head, we've always known that," Gibbons said.

Afterward, inside the Toronto clubhouse, Hutchison was slightly bemused when he emerged from the showers to see a gaggle of reporters standing around wanting to see how his memory was after getting hit.

"Unfortunately I still know who Barry is," Hutchison said, taking a playful jab at Barry Davis, the omnipresent Blue Jays reporter for Rogers Sportsnet.

"Obviously if it was a regular season I would have argued or said I knew I was fine," Hutchison added a bit later. "But just one of those things, you know how it goes with the head, so I had to come out."

Hutchison is the most intriguing part of the starting equation the Blue Jays are trying to sort through.

Only 25 but with three major-league seasons behind him, Hutchison was an enigma for the Blue Jays over the course of a 2015 campaign best described as bewildering.

He was Toronto's opening day starter in New York against the Yankees and he earned the decision in a 6-1 Blue Jays victory at Yankee Stadium. Hutchison would only go on to win only one more game on the road the rest of the season.

At face value, Hutchison's overall record of 13-5 (11-2 at home, 2-3 on the road) doesn't seem that bad until you start poking into the stats a bit deeper.

His earned-run average was a staff-high 5.37 – including an ugly 9.83 in road starts. Much of his success can be attributed to largesse of the Toronto hitters, who provided Hutchison with plenty of support, averaging a gaudy 6.9 runs in games he started.

Hutchison, 2-1 with a 3.26 ERA this spring, has been much sharper in his command around the plate and attributes an added confidence in his slider in helping to boost his effectiveness.

"I've started throwing my slider to both sides of the plate against righties, been throwing it front door and had some success with that the last few outings," he said. "And I thought I had a good sinker, today, also."

While everybody else is making a big deal about who is going to snag the fifth starter's job, Hutchison said the added pressure does not faze him.

"It doesn't change, you're always fighting," he said. "I've only come to spring training once with a job so it's nothing really new. I've always had to compete for everything so for me it doesn't really change the way I approach things."

In the mind of some Blue Jay fans, the competition is already over.

"Hey Gibby," yelled one to the Toronto manager from the stands as Gibbons was walking off the field after Sunday's game. "Let's give that fifth starting job to Sanchez, okay?"

Only time will tell.

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