Osuna: The making of an all-star

Roberto Osuna demonstrates a post-save pose. Photo: Jessica Ng. 

Roberto Osuna demonstrates a post-save pose. Photo: Jessica Ng. 

By Jessica Ng

Canadian Baseball Network

The biggest party in baseball happened this week, and Roberto Osuna got an exclusive invitation.

At the 2017 all-star game in Miami, he threw seven strikes in nine pitches and faced only three hitters in the seventh inning for the American League.

Named June’s AL reliever of the month, he was selected as an all-star replacement, and is the youngest Blue Jay to ever have an all-star title.

“It feels pretty good, especially because it was my dream when I was a kid,” he said. “Being here at this age means a lot for me.”

Osuna has converted 21 consecutive saves, and last month, he became the youngest pitcher to record 75 career saves.

At times, the journey has been tough for the closer, whose team is far from his hometown of Juan Jose Rios, Sinaloa, Mex.

He grew up in and around baseball – his father, also named Roberto Osuna, pitched in the Liga Mexicana de Béisbol for 22 seasons, bringing his family with him for every move and new team.

“My dad – he’s always been with me,” said the Blue Jays closer. “Taking me to the field when I was young, teaching me everything that I know right now.

“For me, he was everything.”

All the young Osuna wanted to do was play baseball – he dropped out of school at age 12, and soon after, was invited to play in an all-star regional tournament in Tokyo.

His earliest baseball memory comes from around that time in his life:

“When I was 12, 13 years old, I used to play third base, too,” he said. “I love to hit, so I was hitting. I go back to that time and it feels pretty good.”

With another all-star tour, this time through Italy, the Blue Jays closer sparked a buzz among international scouts.

In 2011, he signed with the Diablos Rojos of Mexico City, widely known as the best team in Mexico.

On April 11, Osuna made his pro debut at Estadio de Béisbol Francisco I. Madero – a park from his childhood, the same one where his father had broken the league record for pitching appearances in a season.

Roberto Jr. pitched 19 2/3 innings over 13 games with the Diablos Rojos. On Aug. 30, 2011, the Blue Jays came out on top of a bidding war for the young prospect, acquiring him by paying the team a sum to purchase his contract while a $1.5 million signing bonus went to Osuna.

“He [Osuna] was the one guy that the minute we saw, that he was a guy that we had to go after,” then-Blue Jays director of Latin America, Marco Paddy, said in an August 2011 conference call.

The pitcher moved through the minors relatively quickly. His first promotion came after only seven appearances with the Bluefield Blue Jays.

In his first game with the Vancouver Canadians, he struck out 13 in five innings to set a franchise record.

He underwent Tommy John surgery in his 2013 season with the Lansing Lugnuts. The next year, he struggled, posting a 6.26 ERA in his time with the Gulf Coast League and Dunedin Blue Jays.

After success at spring training in 2015 as a non-roster invitee, he made his debut in Toronto as the youngest pitcher in club history on April 8 against the New York Yankees.

Osuna was instrumental in getting to and winning the AL Division Series against the Texas Rangers. In Game 5, then 20, he converted a five-out save, becoming the youngest AL pitcher to record a postseason save.

The Sinaloa native became the Jays’ go-to closer in 2016 and recorded 36 saves.

His third year in the majors got off to a rough start – he had less than stellar results at the World Baseball Classic, and went into the season on the disabled list for a cervical spasm. Upon return, he blew three of his first four saves.

“It’s part of the job,” he said. “Sometimes, you make the pitch and you get a homer. It’s all part of the game, and I just try to keep working hard. I was really sure that things would come my way sooner or later.”

In a season plagued by an unusually lofty number of players going on the disabled list, mental and physical health remain top priorities for the Blue Jays.

Osuna recently opened up about struggling with anxiety off the field, which kept him on the bench for an important save opportunity in June. With the help of the team and support staff, he is now on the road to recovery.

“Hopefully, I can stay healthy and do my best,” he said. “Everything I think, everything I live for, is just about baseball.”