Blue Jays’ bullpen gets redemption in win over Rays

Justin Smoak hit a two-run home run as the Toronto Blue Jays picked up the 4-1 win over the Tampa Bay Rays.

TORONTO – After a week to forget, the Toronto Blue Jays’ bullpen earned a little redemption Saturday.

Blue Jays relievers blew leads Tuesday, Thursday and Friday, suffering two tough losses as a result. Considering how poorly the bullpen had pitched earlier in the week, the relief efforts of Joe Biagini, Joe Smith and Roberto Osuna were a welcome and necessary development for the Blue Jays Saturday.

The relief trio combined to shut down the Tampa Bay Rays for four innings on the way to a 4-1 win that their manager later described as “huge.” Those performances don’t eliminate the many questions surrounding the Blue Jays, or even their bullpen, but they were enough to seal a rare win, just their seventh in 24 attempts.

As Biagini entered the game in the sixth inning, runners stood on first and second with nobody out. At that point, the Blue Jays had just a one-run lead, but instead of allowing himself to dwell on the specifics of his high-stakes assignment, Biagini composed himself, directing his attention at Tim Beckham and nobody else.

"I don’t always do that well, but I’m trying to improve on that," Biagini said. "I’m trying to get better at understanding that that’s kind of the most important aspect to being consistent."

Two strikeouts and a ground ball later, Biagini had escaped the inning unscathed. He followed that up with another scoreless inning and left the game with just one blemish on his line, a pitch that caught Steven Souza Jr. on the back of the hand and forced him to leave the game.

Smith followed with a scoreless eighth inning, setting up Osuna, who retired all three batters he faced for his second save. The outing was especially encouraging for the Blue Jays after watching their closer blow saves in three of his first six appearances.

"The game’s never easy. Some guys can make it look a little easier than others, and we’ve seen him make it look real easy," manager John Gibbons said.

"He’s been in a little bit of a rut, so I think that’ll do wonders for his confidence. We sometimes forget he’s 22. He’s accomplished a lot already, but he still has emotions, and he still battles like anybody else."

A conversation with Russell Martin prompted Osuna to rely more heavily on his four-seam fastball Saturday. Earlier in the season, he had been mixing in more two-seamers and breaking pitches in an attempt to keep hitters off-balance. The message from Martin was simple.

"You’ve had a lot of success the last two years with the four-seam, so I don’t really think you need anything else," Martin told Osuna. "Use the four-seam, locate your fastball."

In retrospect, Osuna says it was a “bad decision” to stray from the four-seam fastball. He felt “much better” Saturday after going back to a pitch he relied on heavily in 2015 and 2016.

"I feel really happy about it, and hopefully I can keep pitching like this," he said.

Thanks to Martin, Jose Bautista and Justin Smoak, the Blue Jays got enough offence. Martin had two hits, including an RBI double; Bautista walked twice, stole a base and scored two runs; Smoak singled in each of his first two at-bats before hitting a loud two-run home run into the batter’s eye in centre field.

Meanwhile, the Rays’ lone run provided the Blue Jays with a bit of a scare.

Martin took a blow to the neck in the second inning when Beckham attempted to score from second on a Jesus Sucre single. As Beckham rounded third, Bautista let loose a powerful, accurate throw from right field, providing further evidence that his throwing arm is again at full strength. After catching the throw, Martin turned to tag Beckham, who collided with the catcher’s head and neck as he scored. Martin ultimately stayed in the game and didn’t appear to have any problems as a result of the collision.

Before the Blue Jays turned to their bullpen, their starting pitcher did his job. Francisco Liriano provided the Blue Jays with five quality innings, allowing one run, four walks and four hits while striking out six. The left-hander closed out the first month of the season with a 3.97 ERA—not bad at all considering he began the year with a disastrous start against the Rays.

Questions still linger in the Blue Jays’ bullpen, as J.P. Howell doesn’t presently inspire much confidence and Jason Grilli’s slider hasn’t been nearly as effective as it has been in the past. Without those two pitchers, the Blue Jays aren’t where they need to be.

The Blue Jays will try yet again to turn a single win into some more substantive success when Aaron Sanchez returns from the disabled list for the series finale Sunday against Chris Archer.

So far, the Blue Jays’ attempts to build momentum have fizzled, and they have yet to win consecutive games. Eight blown saves later, the bullpen shares responsibility for those struggles, but at least for one day Toronto’s relievers contributed with a long-awaited shutdown performance.

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