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MIAMI — There is no question that Blue Jays closer Roberto Osuna has the numbers to be here at baseball’s all-star game for the first time in his young career.
The 22-year-old native of Mexico arrived in South Florida on Sunday with a consecutive saves streak of 21, tied for the longest active run in the majors and a big reason he was a late addition to the American League team for Tuesday’s game.
Earlier this season he became the youngest reliever in major-league history to reach 75 career saves, and the AL reliever of the month for June has 22 overall this season, tied for fifth most in the majors.
But the most impressive number Osuna may have in his arsenal so far, in this his third major-league season, is 99. That would be the digits on the back of the jersey of the player who is the talk of these all-star festivities, New York Yankees rookie slugger Aaron Judge.
Four times the crafty and clutch Jays reliever has faced the slugger who is threatening to steal the show here in Miami this week and four times Judge has struck out.
“I can attest for why he’s an all-star,” Judge told Postmedia on Monday at Marlins Park prior to the home-run Derby. “He’s got the stuff. He’s got the makeup. He’s a competitor. He goes out there and competes. He’s going to give you what he’s got and lay it on the line.”
Osuna relishes the situations that define a closer and has proven to be one of the best at it so early in a career.
Facing and dismissing Judge in all four encounters so far is a worthy example. Back on June 4, he struck Judge out on three pitches — two foul balls and a blistering 95 mph fastball high in the zone that an induced a swing and a miss from the sensational young star.
“It’s tough to face him, he’s one of the best hitters in the big leagues,” Osuna said. “With Judge you have to be very careful. You can’t miss in the middle. That guy has a lot of power and he can do some damage, any time any pitch.
“I always face him in a tough situation so I can’t get distracted about anything. I just have to go out there from the first pitch trying to get him out.”
Distractions, of course, have been a worrisome part of the Osuna story so far this season, worries that have made his success that much more remarkable.
In spring training, it was a nagging neck issue that he tried to pitch through and ended up struggling. On Monday, Osuna said he didn’t feel pain free until an early May series against the Cleveland Indians with the season already 33 games old.
He has been money on the mound since, but the pain in the neck wasn’t the end of his battles. During a June visit to Kansas City, Osuna was unavailable to manager John Gibbons in a save situation, as he was knocked down with anxiety issues.
To the Jays credit, the team responded swiftly to support Osuna, a sentiment matched by a positive outpouring of concern and well wishes from Toronto fans. But the biggest help came from within the Jays clubhouse where catcher Russell Martin and (before he was released and landed in Texas) reliever Jason Grilli.
“Both (Grilli and Martin) told me they went through the same thing when they were younger and that helped me a lot,” Osuna said. “Grilli was spending days and nights with me. He became to me like my second Dad, I would say.
“Not only in (dealing with anxiety). He was telling me a lot of things about baseball on the field and off the field about life. He’s been through a lot of things.
“I learned a lot from him and obviously I’m missing him a lot. I talk to him every day and he’s become a big part of my life.”
As for his shut-down success this season, Osuna continues to be the reliable force that he’s been the past couple of seasons, one of the few players the Jays could regularly count on in June.
His skimpy 2.06 ERA is among the best in baseball and with just three blown saves on the season, his ability in the clutch is not an issue. If he gets the call in Tuesday’s game, Osuna will be the youngest Jays player to perform on this stage, a status currently held by Dave Stieb dating back to 1980.
“I think this will be a good opportunity for him, to let the world look at him,” Jays manager John Gibbons said. “I anticipate he’ll have a few of those appearances before it’s all said and done.”
Osuna’s smile was wide certainly wide on Monday as he soaked up the first of what he hopes will be many trips to the Midsummer Classic. Accompanied by family members and friends, who have also been at his side throughout the whirlwind journey to be one of baseball’s best.
“I never worry about myself or have doubt about myself because I know what I can do,” Osuna said. “Everybody has ups and downs and that’s what I was going through in the beginning of the season. I wasn’t 100%. I wanted to help the team. I didn’t do well. I had to make adjustments and obviously I’m feeling better now.”
SMOAK ON OSUNA: UNBELIEVABLE
From his regular crouch at first base, Justin Smoak has a clear view of Blue Jays teammate Roberto Osuna when he gets down to the business of shutting down a baseball game.
And like so many in the American League, Smoak is at times blown away by the Jays 22-year-old closer’s varied attack.
“He can throw everything for strikes,” said Smoak, the American League’s starting first baseman in the MLB all-star game. “And it’s not easy to do that with four pitches. He’s got a nasty slider that’s 88 to 90 mph and it goes straight down. He can throw it for a strike when he wants to a 97 heater and the pitch that he doesn’t throw a lot that I think is one of his best pitches is the change up.
“He’s been like that for us for two years. He’s our guy. The kid is unbelievable. He’s one of the best pitchers I’ve ever seen at that age.”
The success at such a young age is indeed extraordinary, but Smoak points to his experience as a 16- and 17-year-old playing pro ball in his native Mexico as a possible factor.
“Playing in Mexico as a young kid, in that league, kind of prepared him for the big leagues and the situation he was going to be in,” Smoak said.
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