03/14/2014 04:28 EDT | Updated 05/14/2014 05:59 EDT

Hutchison has strong outing, presses case to join Jays starting rotation

DUNEDIN, Fla. - John Gibbons asked for strike-throwers and Drew Hutchison obliged Friday.

The 23-year-old right-hander, continuing to make a strong case to become Toronto's fourth starter, threw 4 2/3 strong innings in the Blue Jays 3-1 exhibition loss to the Boston Red Sox.

Hutchison, who was tagged with the loss, gave up one run on four hits with seven strikeouts and no walks. He retired the first eight Red Sox he faced and threw 71 pitches with 51 strikes.

"An outstanding outing," said Jays catcher Dioner Navarro.

"A great performance," echoed Gibbons, who nevertheless was coy on what might lie ahead for Hutchison.

Pressed by reporters, Gibbons allowed: "He's doing everything he needs to do."

Hutchison returned from Tommy John surgery last fall, pitching in the Arizona Fall League. He seems on top of his game this spring.

Hutchison showed his mettle in the fourth inning Friday, striking out Mike Napoli to end the inning after a lengthy at-bat that saw the Red Sox hitter foul off a number of pitches. The Jays pitcher hit 95 miles per hour during the confrontation.

"He's got more than I thought he did," said Gibbons. "And he can pop it up pretty good — with command. Which makes the guys that are really good really good."

This spring Hutchison has given up three runs and seven hits in 9 2/3 innings while striking out 16 and walking one. Opposing batters are hitting just .200 against him.

Hutchison made 11 starts for the Jays in 2012 (going 5-3 with a 4.60 ERA) before injuring his arm while warming up in the bullpen for a game against the Philadelphia Phillies.

Throwing strikes is his modus operandi.

"That's what he does. He was good when he was here the first time before he got hurt," said Gibbons. "That's how he pitches. The key is just being healthy."

The same can be said for J.A. Happ, another would-be starter who returned Friday from an ailing back.

The six-foot-six left-hander pronounced himself happy with a three-inning performance in a minor-league game. He gave up one hit, walked one and struck out two.

"It was good. Exciting," said Happ. "I felt normal out there which is really nice."

Said Gibbons: "I heard he pitched really well."

A gaggle of pitchers is trying to join R.A. Dickey, Mark Buehrle and Brandon Morrow in the Jays' rotation.

Barring a trade, Nos. 4 and 5 will come from Hutchison, Happ, Ricky Romero, Esmil Rogers, Todd Redmond, Kyle Drabek, Marcus Stroman and Sean Nolin.

Of the three main contenders, Hutchison appears to have pitched his way into the rotation.

Romero is turning heads with his improved performance this spring. But Happ has had an uneasy pre-season. In two starts, he has given up six runs in just 1 1/3 innings. The back issue has further muddied the waters.

Gibbons, who had yet to speak to Happ following the minor-league outing, said the major issue was making sure Happ's back was healthy. Happ, in speaking to reporters, said the back was fine.

The lines of communication within the Jays on Happ seem a little blurry in general. The pitcher seemed unhappy with GM Alex Anthopoulos' answer late last week on whether there were one or two spots open in the starting rotation.

"There could be two," Anthopoulos said at the time." I think we're going to take the best team north. Especially right now, we have J.A. (Happ) and the back, the performance, things like that, we have to get him on track, stay healthy.

"Obviously R.A., Mark and Brandon. Again, we expect J.A. to be in the rotation but at the same time the back's flared up on him twice. I just don't know. Look, if guys perform well and they force our hand, we'll take the best team."

Asked on Friday if he had something to prove in the wake of those words, Happ replied: "I don't have any comment on that. My comment is no comment.

"That was probably disappointing to hear but there's nothing I want to say about it."

Happ has campaigned to be a starter since arriving here via trade and the issue appears to have left a chip on his shoulder.

Last spring he found himself on the outside of the rotation looking in, until Romero pitched his way out of it.

Happ eventually went 5-7 with a 4.56 ERA in 18 starts last year in a season disrupted by a nasty setback. Hit in the head by a ball off the bat of Desmond Jennings in a May game with the Tampa Bay Rays, he was out for three months with a skull fracture and a sprained right knee from when he toppled to the ground.

While the Red Sox didn't bring all of their starters Friday, their lineup did included Mike Carp, Napoli and Jonny Gomes in the meat of the order.

Boston finally got to Hutchison in the fifth. Gomes singled and came home on Corey Brown's double to deep centre. The relay throw by Ryan Goins was a little high, allowing Gomes to score.

The Red Sox added two more in the eighth before Jonathan Diaz scored on a Kevin Pillar double in the bottom of the inning to cut the lead to 3-1.

Boston starter Clay Buchholz was also impressive, holding the Jays scoreless on two hits in four innings. After giving up two singles to open the first inning, he retired 11 straight for the win.

The 29-year-old right-hander went 9-0 with a 1.71 earned-run average ERA in his first 12 starts last season before going on the disabled list for more than three months with shoulder and neck problems.

He returned in September, finishing with a 12-1 mark and 1.74 ERA.

The loss was the third straight for Toronto, which slipped to 6-9. Boston improved to 7-8.

The game drew a sellout of 5,519 on a sunny 20 C day at Florida Auto Exchange Stadium.