MONTREAL – When Roberto Osuna made the Toronto Blue Jays’ opening day roster as a 20-year-old rookie in 2015, he had never pitched at double-A, let alone the major-leagues. To earn that roster spot, he needed an incredible spring.
Because Osuna has since established himself as the Blue Jays’ closer, a strong spring, while preferable, is no longer a requirement. Osuna had what his manager describes as a ‘tough spring’ this year, struggling against Italy in the World Baseball Classic, dealing with neck and back stiffness and seeing far more 93s than 96s on stadium radar guns.
In that context, his drama-free ninth inning in Friday’s exhibition game against the Pittsburgh Pirates had to have been particularly reassuring for the Blue Jays.
“People are raising the question ‘how does he look?’” manager John Gibbons said afterwards. “Look, you’ve got to keep in mind that he’s an established guy, he’s got nothing prove, but you want to see him tune it up a little and I thought he did that his last couple of [outings].”
On a night that the Blue Jays used many of their primary relievers for the last time this spring, Osuna faced four batters, striking out one, allowing a single, and recording two groundball outs. While radar readings weren’t available, catcher Russell Martin liked what he saw from the Blue Jays’ dugout.
“It looked like the ball was coming out good,” Martin said. “He had some tightness on his slider.”
Martin says he has “tremendous confidence” in Osuna, who posted a 2.68 ERA with 36 saves and 82 strikeouts during the 2016 regular season.
“He’s one of those guys I don’t worry about,” Martin said. “He’s there when we need him. He’s reliable.”
“He’s a guy that doesn’t really dwell if things don’t go his way,” Martin continued. “He wants the ball, he believes in himself. He’s human, but he definitely has that warrior-type mentality.”
Before calling on Osuna, Gibbons used many of his ‘main guys’ in relief of starter Marcus Stroman. Joe Biagini, Aaron Loup and Jason Grilli each pitched full innings, while Ryan Tepera and J.P. Howell shared the seventh. Mike Bolsinger, who’s competing for a spot in Toronto’s bullpen, was the lone MLB reliever who didn’t appear in the game, the first of two at Olympic Stadium.
Loup and Grilli pitched particularly well, each picking up a pair of strikeouts. While Grilli arrived at spring training assured of a setup role, Loup had no such guarantees. His strikeouts, against the right-handed hitting Starling Marte and the left-handed hitting John Jaso, built on what’s been a strong spring for the left-hander.
“He did a good job against a couple of right-handed hitters, which isn’t going to be his primary job,” Gibbons said. “Loupy had a good spring. His velocity picked up … he’s confident as he’s been the last couple of years.”
Considering the value Loup offered earlier in his career as a matchup lefty, that’s an encouraging sign for the Blue Jays. More importantly, their closer’s performance suggests his tough spring may be ending at just the right time.