DUNEDIN, FLA–Two years ago you couldn’t miss Roberto Osuna during spring training.
Brought in essentially to help hold Miguel Castro’s hand, he was the talk of the camp. Now it seems like you can barely find him: three innings pitched, plus at least one at the minor league camp with his manager, John Gibbons, suggesting matter-of-factly that he needs to get him some steady work in the final week.
Osuna was scheduled to pitch Wednesday against the Detroit Tigers, but was scratched with a stiff neck. Pitching coach Pete Walker just shrugged when asked when Osuna would work next. Maybe Friday in the minor league camp. Or Saturday, with a Grapefruit League outing on Monday. Perhaps.
One of the issues created by what Blue Jays play-by-play announcer Jerry Howarth so accurately describes as a “disjointed” spring caused by the World Baseball Classic is that a measured approach can sometimes suggest nothing’s happening. Not true. Osuna pitched six Grapefruit League innings last spring and went on to post a 0.932 WHIP. He had 36 saves and tossed 74 innings. He was awful in one outing for Team Mexico in the WBC, but he’s not worried. Osuna Matata.
Are things OK? He smiles widely, sees catcher Russell Martin walk by his locker and fist-bumps him. Osuna Matata.
“When you talk about workload and how guys take care of themselves … I think he’s still in the process of making adjustments in his routine. He’s still super young and he’s still figuring out what he needs to do to stay fresh and feel good for a long season,” Martin said earlier this week.
“He’s had success in the last couple of years doing it his way. I definitely think he can do certain things maybe a little differently and make adjustments in how he prepares … but it’s something that you learn as you go along. I think slowly with our strength coaches and our trainers, everybody’s working together. I know he looks up to me a little bit because he used to watch me when I was with the Dodgers and he was back home, so I can definitely have a little influence on him.
“But he’s his own man.”
Wednesday’s final game of the World Baseball Classic was greeted by a collective sigh of relief in managers and general managers offices around baseball. Some, such as New York Yankees manager Joe Girardi, have found it difficult to maintain their qualified support for the event. Girardi lost his starting shortstop, Didi Gregorius, to a right shoulder injury when he was playing second base with The Netherlands during an exhibition game between rounds of the WBC.
“We try to build these guys up for the event as best you can,” he said. “But we’re asking them to be in intense competition at a time when they’re not used to it.”
The Blue Jays, by comparison, got off lucky. Jose Bautista developed back stiffness during travel back from the West Coast after the elimination of the Dominican Republic and was a late scratch Wednesday, but he expects to be ready to play Friday against the Boston Red Sox. Marcus Stroman was named most valuable player after a breathtaking performance for Team U.S.A. in the championship final and Gibbons must feel vindicated.
Gibbons believed the exposure was going to be a good thing for his young starter. In fact, Gibbons introduced Stroman to U.S. manager Jim Leyland earlier this spring, bringing them into his office, telling Leyland to look past the size of the player with him.
“He’ll fight for you,” Gibbons said.
Stroman was the losing pitcher when Puerto Rico beat the U.S. in pool play, allowing four runs and eight hits and giving up six consecutive hits, but he bulled his way through 4.2 innings. Leyland sent Gibbons a text the next morning.
“No (expletive deleted),” it read, or some such thing. He was right – even before Stroman lit up the final.
Osuna also pitched in the WBC but with vastly different results. He failed to register an out in Mexico’s shocking loss to Italy, and with that performance many saw red flags. He threw an inning in the minor league camp on Saturday, throwing 15 pitches (14 strikes) in front of bullpen coach Dane Johnson. Not bad. Johnson said Osuna was too wound up in the WBC game, that there was nothing untoward mechanically or physically.
In addition to girding himself for the rigours of what might be the third consecutive season in which he closes for a playoff team in the American League East before the age of 23 – let that rattle around in your head for a minute – Osuna has focused on maintaining arm speed with his change-up to get more swings and misses.
Halfway through his rookie season, Osuna mentioned that he wanted to be the next Mariano Rivera. This is a kid who has come from nothing, who pitched professionally in Mexico before he could order a drink legally. He is, as one Blue Jays official noted, motivated by financial reward out of necessity as well as fulfilling a competitive urge. As Osuna closes in on arbitration years, his contract status is something to keep an eye on at a time when the game is skewing younger, when Brett Cecil can command a $30.5-million guaranteed four-year contract and a team like the Chicago White Sox is comfortable giving out a six-year deal to Tim Anderson after his rookie season. God help us if Scott Boras gets his hands on this kid.
“That stuff … I’m not worried about it. That’s why I have an agent to take care of it,” Osuna said, amicably. “I just want to pitch. I just want to save ballgames and win.”
Gibbons and Pat Hentgen, a special advisor with the organization whose pitching DNA is spread throughout this organization, are of the same mind when it comes to Osuna and his ability to handle the rigours of closing. He has such a preternatural feel for pitching and has things they haven’t yet seen, that if there is a drop in velocity at times during the season they know Osuna can ‘feel’ his way out of it. Osuna also has Martin, and the pair have a relationship that goes beyond pitcher and catcher.
Osuna’s uncle Antonio had an 11-year Major League career, six with the Dodgers, who have a spiritual connection to the Mexican community rooted in the success enjoyed by the venerable Fernando Valenzuela. So it was natural that Osuna watched the Dodgers – and Martin in particular.
“To be honest, he is an inspiration to me because of how hard he works,” said Osuna, whose knock-knock routine with Martin when they meet on the mound after a successful save is a favourite of Blue Jays fans. “He’s been around this game for a long time. I love to be his teammate and I love every time we have a conversation. He really means a lot to me.
“I was a big fan of his,” Osuna said. “I remember, he was hitting with a red coloured bat with the Dodgers. I used to watch him all the time and let me tell you this: It was always a dream to meet him. Not to play on the same team as him. Just to meet him.”