Blue Jays’ Osuna back in top form after early concerns

Justin Smoak hit a two-run shot to tie things up and Josh Donaldson’s solo dinger got the Blue Jays a 3-2 win over the Yankees.

TORONTO — Roberto Osuna owns the New York Yankees.

He struck out Alex Rodriguez on a called third strike in his debut on April 8, 2015, asked for the ball and was later told by A-Rod that: “You can be the next Mariano Rivera.” After Sunday’s 11-pitch ninth, he has 11 career saves against them in 20 games, striking out 21, walking three and has an earned run average of 1.23. The Yankees have hit .151 off him.

He struck out Aaron Judge to end Friday’s game. Sunday, he again faced the Yankees slugger – who made a huge impression in this city both with his uncommon power and gracious interaction with fans – and struck him out again en route to striking out the side and preserving a 3-2 Blue Jays win.

Blue Jays broadcasters Buck Martinez and Pat Tabler both noted on Friday night ahead of Osuna’s showdown with Judge that with two out and none on and the Jays holding a two-run lead, it was the perfect opportunity to lay down a marker and maybe “find something out” about Judge. Martinez suggested starting the big Yankees slugger out with something low and then putting him away up high – which is exactly what Osuna and catcher Luke Maile had in mind.

Toronto Blue Jays on Sportsnet NOW
Want to stream every Blue Jays games this season? Sportsnet NOW has you covered. Catch every Blue Jays game, marquee MLB matchups, the 2017 Home Run Derby and All-Star Game, the playoffs and entire World Series.

“Judge, he’s a guy who can hit any breaking pitch that’s in the strike zone, at least that’s what I think,” Osuna said afterward. “He’s so big, sometimes I think guys are scared to elevate against him but you can do it as long as you don’t let him get those arms out all the way. That at-bat, we wanted to go up high with a fastball.”

Sunday, Osuna worked Judge lower.

Osuna is back to where he was at his very best the past couple of seasons. And while manager John Gibbons in particular thinks we all over-reacted earlier this season when there were concerns about his velocity – exacerbated by a meltdown while pitching for Mexico in the World Baseball Classic – it’s no secret that some in the organization worried that Osuna did not adhere to the Blue Jays’ off-season program, preferring instead to do some freelancing while back home in Mexico. Osuna, after all, has a well-documented streak of stubbornness.

But he also has an uncommon sense of the moment, and when I asked him if he expected many more key showdowns between himself and Judge, he just smiled and nodded.

PHLAT ALBERT

There’s no point in decrying that baseball’s steroid era continues to influence our celebration of milestones achieved by players with a foot in both drug-testing and pre drug-testing days. It’s just the way it is …

So it’s no surprise that Albert Pujols’ 600th career home run, on a grand slam on Saturday, was treated less as some sort of historical occurrence as it was a reason for what amounted to a house party. A small, intimate, gathering of a fans aware of the accomplishment and social media kudos from some of his peers. Part of this is because Pujols has spent recent seasons with the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, a rather featureless and often pointless team that plays far out of the game’s media mainstream.

My guess is that the achievement would have been accorded a little more reverence were Pujols still with the St. Louis Cardinals. It’s a shame, too, because Pujols – the ninth player to reach the 600 mark – will be the pre-eminent non-American-born hitter of all time when he retires.

Oh, and if you’re wondering, the only other player to hit a grand slam for a 400th, 500th, 600th or 700th homer was Carlos Delgado, who was with the New York Mets when he slammed Jeff Weaver of the St. Louis Cardinals for his 400th career jack on Aug. 22, 2006. Pujols, incidentally, hit two homers himself in that game, playing for the Cardinals …

QUIBBLES AND BITS

• This whole scene around Blue Jays starter Joe Biagini is becoming fascinating. Biagini, who will be part of the Blue Jays rotation in 2018, continues to progress as a starter even though his comments after his most recent outing (Saturday) reveal a pitcher almost resigned to the fact that he will be back in the bullpen whenever Aaron Sanchez’s fingernail heals enough to allow him to return to the rotation.

The Blue Jays need bullpen help, with this four-game series against the Yankees only reinforcing that Gibbons needs to think twice – or be short-handed – before trusting high-leverage situations to J.P. Howell or Jason Grilli. Yet when Biagini joins the bullpen, how will he be used? Joe Smith has been unhittable and Danny Barnes and Ryan Tepera wobbled a bit during the weekend but have, frankly, allowed the Blue Jays to use Biagini in his current role.

Tepera’s emergence is a testimony to organizational patience; a holdover from Alex Anthopoulos’ tenure, he survived the arrival of a new administration despite uncertain performances when he was promoted.

It’s not just his stuff; the way he can manipulate the ball to make his cutter go bigger and become a swing-and-miss slider, either.

Pitching coach Pete Walker was in his corner, telling his new bosses that he felt Walker had the right “heartbeat” to pitch in high-leverage situations.

That, plus confidence.

“Sometimes, you need to know you have a margin for error, that you can fail or struggle and not be sent down right away,” Walker said.

• The Washington Nationals are continuing their assault on the franchise record book, which of course carries implications for those of us who feel some type of attachment to the Montreal Expos. The Nationals’ record through 55 games (35-20) is the best in franchise history and Friday night they accomplished a franchise-first during an interleague game in Oakland when all nine players in the starting lineup picked up a run and a run batted in. It was the third time in franchise history that nine or more players had at least one RBI and scored at least one run per game (on June 17, 1979, 10 Expos managed the feat in a 19-3 win over the Houston Astros and again on April 11, 1993, in a 19-9 win over the Colorado Rockies — who were an expansion team then playing at Mile High Stadium). But in those two games, at least one starter finished without an RBI or run.

• Remarkably, considering how many dominant defencemen we’ve seen in recent post-seasons, the Nashville Predators Roman Josi is only the fifth in the past 21 years with a three-point game in the Stanley Cup Final.

The others: Rob Blake of the Colorado Avalanche, in Game 1 and Adam Foote of the Avalanche in Game 6 of the 2001 Final (each had a goal and two assists); the Carolina Hurricanes‘ Frantisek Kaberle (one goal, two assists) in Game 2 of the 2006 Final and Duncan Keith of the Chicago Blackhawks, who had three assists in Game 4 of the 2010 Final.

THE ENDGAME

Speaking of defencemen: I love P.K. Subban and his game as much as anybody, but if he’s serious about hogging all the spotlight and emerging as some sort of hybrid Mark Messier/LeBron James/Joe Namath, he’s going to have to raise things beyond the nonsensical “bad breath” stuff. I mean, anybody who tried to spin that into Subban “making the series about himself” is in dire need of a new outlook; and anybody who treats it as being somehow funny needs to probably get out more.

It was pointless; a waste of time and energy and a further reflection of how far we have lowered the bar in hopes of finding someone who will say more than simply “we need to give 100 per cent.”

Honestly? Sometimes people in the media need to stop being afraid of being a filter and not just a conduit.

Jeff Blair hosts The Jeff Blair Show from 9-11 a.m. ET and Baseball Central from 11 a.m.-Noon ET on Sportsnet 590 The Fan

When submitting content, please abide by our submission guidelines, and avoid posting profanity, personal attacks or harassment. Should you violate our submissions guidelines, we reserve the right to remove your comments and block your account. Sportsnet reserves the right to close a story’s comment section at any time.