Perhaps the most widely quoted cliche of the late, great Yogi Berra was, “It ain’t over ’til it’s over.” But in terms of the division race in the American League East, the Toronto Blue Jays have all but mathematically claimed the crown. It’s a done deal and with a playoff spot already assured, the champagne is flowing.
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It’s been 22 years since the Jays dominated with back-to-back World Series championships, and they did it with heavy lumber. The 1993 team had three players – John Olerud, Paul Molitor and Roberto Alomar – finish in that order while pursuing the AL batting title. So, it’s not surprising that the success of Toronto’s 2015 team is all about hitting. Even in the absence of injured All-Star shortstop Troy Tulowitzki, the stacked lineup of Josh Donaldson, Jose Bautista, Juan Encarnacion and Russell Martin offer no mercy for opposing pitchers. As a result, this club leads the league in home runs, doubles, runs scored and slugging percentage.
The Jay’s pitching isn’t too shabby either, especially since the acquisition of David Price. His supporting cast is decent enough and with all that offense, one would think that the only bullpen chores would be for a couple of guys to come in and mop up. Those thoughts can be deceiving, however, because baseball is a complex game. And it will be interesting to see how Roberto Osuna, Toronto’s rookie closer, responds to playoff pressure.
Roberto Osuna, only 20 and the youngest player in the big leagues, is a 6′-2″, 230 pound Mexican horse with a high-90s fastball and a power slider. As the nephew of Antonio Osuna, the former Dodgers pitcher who spent 11 years in an MLB uniform, the youngster has a good pedigree. The thing that concerns me, though, is Osuna has made a giant leap from advanced A ball to the varsity this year. Previously in the minor leagues, his work load peaked at 44 innings. This season, the frames have totaled 67 and counting.
Osuna had been cruising until blowing a save on September 18 against the Boston Red Sox, surrendering a two-run blast to Jackie Bradley Jr. He looked a bit better in the first game of the recent New York Yankee series, but coughed up another jack to fellow rookie Greg Bird to make the game adventuresome. For sure, the velocity has been inconsistent and the youngster might be wearing down.
When you look at the teams that will be playing in October, all have excellent bullpens. The Kansas City Royals were jolted with the news Greg Holland will be shut down for the year. Fortunately for the defending AL champions, Wade Davis and Kelvin Herrera remain a dangerous two-headed monster with plenty of depth behind them. The rival Yankees boast the left-right combo of Andrew Miller and Dellin Betances, while the Texas Rangers counter with Shawn Tolleson and a terrific group of arms headed by the talented Keone Kila. Even the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim have the comfort of counting on veteran Huston Street, who has enjoyed another 40-plus season in saves. Only the free-falling Houston Astros are without a shut-down reliever, yet Luke Gregerson has still notched 29 saves with a record of 7-3. Roberto Osuna has 18 saves and a 1-5 slate.
The Toronto bullpen is not a group that make hitters squeamish. Lefty Brett Cecil has been a late-inning staple with 28 holds, and could step in if Osuna encounters more bumps in the road. But that would then thrust lanky Aaron Sanchez back into eighth-inning duty, a role that has not gone well lately. Sanchez, the 23-year-old pride of Barstow, Calif., is a converted starter who has had a pretty good summer. But the Mexican-American sinker ball specialist has had a rough September, with an 8.44 ERA over his last seven appearances. He has been particularly bad against lefty hitters, which presents another dilemma. The only other southpaw option among Toronto relievers is Aaron Loup, a journeyman with a 2-5 record and a 4.76 ERA over 40 innings. Veteran LeTroy Hawkins, who was sent north in the Tulowitzki-Jose Reyes swap with the Colorado Rockies, has had a lot of closer experience. That said, the 42-year-old right-hander has announced his retirement at the end of the season and there’s not much gas left in the tank.
It’s crystal clear that Roberto Osuna is the only logical stopper in the Blue Jays pen. It’s also obvious that this kid, who hails from Chapo Guzman’s home state of Sinaloa and can’t legally buy a beer, is tired in more ways than one. Another famous Yogi phrase was one of extreme wisdom:
“Baseball is ninety percent mental. The other half is physical.”
The translation is self-explanatory. Roberto Osuna has pitched in many high-stress situations and needs a breather. Now that Toronto has hit the finish line and broke the tape, manager John Gibbons needs to give his star performer some badly needed days off to kick back and savor the moment. That’s because a new, high-stakes portion of the season is about to begin. The competition will be more formidable and that powerful offense will enjoy fewer blowouts.
In my opinion, Roberto Osuna could be the X factor who could determine the success or failure of the Blue Jays in the playoffs. When the chips are down, a team is only as strong as its weakest link.