TOR@PHI: McGowan fans five over three one-hit innings

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- Right-hander Dustin McGowan is officially in the clear to start the Blue Jays' home opener against he Yankees on Friday night at Rogers Centre.

If there were any lingering doubts about McGowan's availability, they were erased following a Minor League intrasquad game Sunday afternoon. McGowan pitched five innings and threw 77 pitches in his final tuneup before the start of the season.

The workload should be enough to allow McGowan to throw 90-95 pitches during his first outing. He'll need to be closely monitored throughout, but the fact that McGowan got through Sunday's outing without any soreness is another major step in the right direction.

"It went good, got in my pitches, and felt great again today, so I'm ready now," McGowan said before the season opener against Tampa Bay on Monday. "I actually feel better today than I did [Sunday] ... It's been the same the last three times I've pitched, so you can't ask for anything more than that."

McGowan became a late spring contender for the final spot in Toronto's rotation following the prolonged struggles of J.A. Happ and Esmil Rogers. McGowan was considered a long shot at the start of camp, but following three impressive innings against the Phillies on March 20, all of that changed.

The 32-year-old was extended to four innings during his next outing, which was enough to be officially named the fifth starter. It's a remarkable accomplishment considering McGowan has dealt with more than his fair share of injuries over the years, and hasn't made the 25-man roster out of Spring Training since 2008.

That's also the last time McGowan was a full-time starter. He made four September starts in 2011 and spent last year in the bullpen, but this is the first time in recent memory that McGowan has been able to settle into any kind of rhythm.

"It's almost like I'm in a routine," said McGowan, who has a 4.65 ERA in 105 career games. "In '07, '08, I remember how I felt after starting games and how I felt a few days after, and it's kind of the process I'm going through now. So far it's been good.

"I'll be jacked up [Friday], excited. I keep thinking about it every day, I'm already ready to go. That day is going to be special. I'll have to calm myself down but it's good to have it pumping sometimes like that, gives you a little extra in there."

Janssen hoping to return at end of 15-day DL stint

TOR@PHI: Janssen strikes out two in scoreless frame

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- Closer Casey Janssen was relegated to the role of a bystander Monday afternoon as the Blue Jays made their final preparations for Opening Day.

Toronto's clubhouse was loud and buzzing with excitement in the hours before Monday afternoon's first pitch against Tampa Bay, but Janssen was noticeably downcast. It's easy to figure out why after news broke Sunday afternoon that Janssen would miss the start of the season because of a lower back strain.

Janssen is expected to miss the first two weeks, a damaging blow to the veteran right-hander after he made a quick recovery from a shoulder injury earlier in the spring, only to be let down in the end by his back.

"I wanted, obviously, to pitch," Janssen said. "It's probably not the smartest thing to do and I don't know how it would react if I were to throw on it tonight. If I got that same feeling that I had on Friday, I'd be worthless for a couple of days.

"Unfortunately, it's probably the smart move, but I hate going on the DL. I want to go out there and compete and help my team, and you can't do a whole heck of a lot when you're on the DL."

Janssen had been limited to just three official spring appearances because of a sore shoulder. There were some initial concerns about whether he would be ready to start the season, but as camp neared a close, everything looked like it was going to be fine.

The 32-year-old had said in those finals days that his arm and shoulder were feeling great, a lot better than they did just one year ago after he experienced similar issues. The only road block Janssen had to clear was pitching against the Mets in Montreal on Friday night in his final scheduled outing.

The back problems began while warming up in the bullpen for that appearance. He felt some tightness in his lower back/left abdominal area, and even though it wasn't enough to stop him from pitching, the discomfort stuck around for the next two days and prompted the club to have Janssen undergo an MRI.

The results revealed a minor strain and Janssen has been ordered to stop throwing until the tightness subsides. Janssen's goal is to be ready when his 15-day DL stint ends April 13 in Baltimore, but there is a danger of having that timeline pushed back unless he's able to resume throwing relatively quickly.

"I don't know, I'm chomping to get going," Janssen said. "I know just a little bit of rest will hopefully calm this thing down enough to where I can keep my arm in shape. As long as I don't lose that, I think it will be quick."

During Janssen's absence, the Blue Jays will hand the closing duties over to Sergio Santos, who recorded 30 saves for the White Sox in 2011. Santos was originally acquired to become Toronto's primary closer following that season, but he eventually lost the job because of prolonged injuries.

Santos is expected to receive most of the save opportunities but manager John Gibbons also didn't want to completely rule out the possibility of using others such as Steve Delabar or Brett Cecil, depending on the situation.

Gibbons stresses importance of strong start

Blue Jays anticipating a battle in the AL East

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- The Blue Jays' first goal of the season is to avoid the type of slow start the club experienced just one year ago.

Toronto began the 2013 season with lofty expectations, but went just 10-18 during the first month. By the end of April, the Blue Jays found themselves 9 1/2 games back of the first-place Red Sox in the American League East, and it was an uphill battle the rest of the way.

That can't happen again this year if the Blue Jays want to prove the critics wrong and become a contender.

"In our division, you bury yourself early, it's over," Blue Jays manager John Gibbons said. "That's the way it works, it's always been that way and will probably always be that way. So you definitely have to hold your own early, that's for sure."

The task at hand isn't an easy one considering the Blue Jays first seven games of the season come against division rivals Tampa Bay and New York. In fact, Toronto hasn't won a road series against the Rays since April 6-8, 2007.

It's a difficult challenge, but Gibbons also knows how important the first stretch can be and isn't about to shy away from that.

"A big one, but like we've said all along going back to last year, we really like this ballclub and now we'll find out how good we are," Gibbons said. "Last year was a disappointment, but I like the way Spring Training went, I think we're ready to play and now we'll see how good we are."