<
>

Blue Jays trusting rookie relievers in late innings

The Toronto Blue Jays won their ninth game in a row on Tuesday, beating the A's 4-2, and once again two rookies pitched the eighth and ninth innings. Aaron Sanchez threw an 11-pitch eighth inning, yielding one hit but allowing an inherited runner to score, while Roberto Osuna threw a 16-pitch ninth inning, striking out two.

Sanchez turned 23 years old in July and throws hard. Of course he does. All 11 pitches were fastballs, mostly 95 mph two-seamers with good sinking action. After posting a 1.09 ERA in 33 innings last year (he still retained his rookie status for 2015), Sanchez began the season in the Toronto rotation, but his lack of secondary pitches means he's best suited to the bullpen. In 41 2/3 career innings out of the bullpen, he has allowed six runs and a .118 batting average. He has probably made his last start in the majors.

Osuna is 20 years old and had just 109 innings in the minors after getting signed out of the Mexican League at 16, none of those above Class A, but he made the team out of spring training. He also throws hard. Sure he does. He threw 13 fastballs out of his 16 pitches, topping out at 96.6 mph, mixed in two sliders and then ended the game with a changeup to Ike Davis. Cruel. Davis swung and missed. Osuna has yet to blow a save -- 11 for 11 -- since taking over as the Toronto closer.

As the Blue Jays look to chase down the Yankees and then enter the stretch run, you're going to hear a lot of speculation about whether these two rookies will be able to handle the late-inning pressure moments, especially as the games get bigger and bigger. After all, they're not veterans, so we automatically question their experience or nerves or intestinal fortitude and everything else that makes veteran closers the preference for most managers.

But Toronto manager John Gibbons isn't going to change course, even after the Jays acquired LaTroy Hawkins and Mark Lowe for additional bullpen depth at the trade deadline. He's betting on talent, and I like that bet.

Is youth really that much of a disadvantage? It always seems to me that late-inning relief work is as much about confidence and belief in yourself -- which, in most cases, means belief in your fastball -- as anything. The little I've seen of these two pitchers suggests the big moments aren't going to get to them.

"I know I've got the ninth inning, right? I'm the closer. But I don't think like that," Osuna told the National Post's John Lott a few days ago. "I think like it's a normal inning and I've got to do my job. I don't think about the ninth inning and I'm going to face Alex Rodriguez, whatever. I feel much better thinking like that than being like, 'Oh, I’m the closer, I gotta do this or that.’ No, no, no. Just nice and easy. I've got a lot of confidence in God, and what I got."

Sanchez and Osuna are also helped by Russell Martin, the cool-headed catcher who is always there with the right advice or calming influence. When catching Osuna in spring training, he made sure to have the rookie throw his changeup, realizing it could be a great weapon. Now, instead of being just a fastball/slider guy, Osuna can mix in that third weapon.

Sure, 20-year-old rookie closers are rare -- Osuna is just the third at 20 to record more than 10 saves, joining Terry Forster in 1972 and Billy McCool in 1965 -- but rookie closers and relief tandems aren't as rare as you may think.

Just two years ago, the Cardinals had Carlos Martinez and Trevor Rosenthal as their two primary late-inning relievers in the postseason. Edward Mujica had been the Cardinals closer that year with 37 saves but struggled in September, and Mike Matheny went with Rosenthal. Rookie Adam Wainwright replaced an injured Jason Isringhausen late in the season for the 2006 Cardinals and was the closer in the postseason as the Cardinals won the World Series. Remember rookie Francisco Rodriguez setting up veteran Troy Percival for the 2002 Angels? Or rookie Bobby Jenks closing for the 2005 champion White Sox? The 2010 Rangers made the World Series with rookie closer Neftali Feliz.

Anyway, you get the point. All those relievers had Grade A stuff. Sanchez and Osuna have that kind of stuff. Trust the kids.

Oh, the Yankees lost in 16 innings. The Jays are a half-game back.

For more on the Blue Jays, check out the Blue Jays Plus blog.