TORONTO -- Trying to maintain his throwing arm in the midst of a 30-month stint with the U.S. Army often proved challenging for Toronto Blue Jays right-hander Chris Rowley. Fortunately, his company medic was willing to cooperate.
The first West Point graduate to reach the major leagues, Rowley pitched one-run ball over 5 1/3 innings to beat the Pittsburgh Pirates in his debut Saturday, leaving the field to a standing ovation.
"It still feels pretty surreal," Rowley said Sunday. "I'm slowly processing it. I'm still in that initial surge. My phone is getting blown up, I have all these interviews. Twenty-four hours ago, relatively nobody knew my name. Now all of a sudden this has blown up. I'm trying to handle the surreal aspect of it."
Working off a major league mound wasn't an option for Rowley in the summer of 2015, when he was stationed in Bulgaria and Romania as part of Operation Atlantic Resolve, aimed at reassuring NATO's European allies in light of Russia's invasion in Ukraine. A first lieutenant, his job as a fire support officer in the field artillery branch was the priority, but Rowley and his medic still found time for the occasional game of catch.
"It was unusual," Rowley said. "He played infield in high school so he wasn't a catcher, but he did a fine job. I was just trying to keep the arm moving and do something to not lose anything."
Those sessions proved helpful once Rowley left the Army in January 2016, having received an exception to the remainder of his service. While he remains on individual ready reserve, he was free to return to the Blue Jays, rejoining the organization at spring training.
"I felt fine, I felt like I was getting guys out and competing," Rowley said of his comeback after missing all of 2014 and 2015. "I think I got away with a lot more then. I was tossing in 87 mph heaters and hoping nobody would hit them. I felt like I was pretty comfortable coming back, but it might have been a little bit unfounded."
Showing few signs of rust, Rowley went 10-3 at Class A Dunedin in 2016. This year, he started at Double-A New Hampshire, going 3-2 with a 1.73 ERA before being promoted to Triple-A in mid-June. Rowley was 3-4 with a 2.82 ERA in Buffalo before getting the call to join Toronto's injury-ravaged rotation.
Blue Jays catcher Mike Ohlman teamed with Rowley at Triple-A and also was behind the plate for the final 1 1/3 innings of Saturday's start.
"All the respect to him for the service he did for our our country and putting that first and foremost, before a baseball career," Ohlman said. "He throws a lot of strikes, fills up the zone, gets a lot of ground balls, and he's got two really good pitches he can throw at any time. The sinker is number one, and he just developed his cutter, a cutter/slider that he'll mix back and forth. It's a really good combination."
Rowley's paternal grandfather enlisted in the Army and served in Korea, while his maternal grandfather was a noncommissioned officer in the Air Force. Even so, the idea of service never appealed to Rowley until a West Point recruiter offered him the chance to be a starting pitcher for the Black Knights.
"I wanted to play baseball at the next level," Rowley said. "It wasn't like I had this calling. The desire to serve with my brothers and sisters in arms, that came later. It was kind of a maturation process for me."
Much of that maturation was due to the tightly controlled life he experienced as a cadet at the U.S. Military Academy.
"Everything is regimented and you have to be somewhere at a certain place at a certain time in a certain uniform," Rowley said. "If you're not there, you're going to be held accountable. It teaches a lot of accountability and professionalism."
Blue Jays manager John Gibbons, the son of an Air Force colonel, said Saturday he was impressed with Rowley's confidence on the mound. He credited the rookie's military background for his composure.
"That's just how they groom 'em," Gibbons said. "He's been through some things."
Acknowledging that his budding baseball career helped reduce his military service, Rowley said he remains indebted to the Army.
"I've been so fortunate to carry a brand," he said. "The whole reason the Army let me go is because of the opportunity to positively reflect on the United States Army and West Point was so much greater in this profession than it would be if I had stayed in active duty. That's why it's so important for me to carry myself the right way on and off the field. I'm really proud and humbled to carry that brand because it's so much more than me, something that I don't know if I'm ever going to be able to truly fathom."