Sports

Toronto Closer Roberto Osuna Continues to Defy the Odds

The Blue Jays reliever became the youngest pitcher in MLB history to reach 100 saves, beating the previous record by over a year.
April 12, 2018, 2:47pm
Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

On April 8, 2015, the Blue Jays and the Yankees were playing their second game of the season. It was a chilly, rainy night in the Bronx, and it was the bottom of the eighth. The Jays had already used two relievers in the inning. New York had scored three runs, two of them on wild pitches, giving the Yankees a 4-3 lead with just one out. The bases were loaded. Alex Rodriguez was at the plate.

It was into this less-than-ideal situation that the Jays sent Roberto Osuna, a recent 20-year-old who had never thrown a pitch above high-A, to make his major-league debut.

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Initially, Osuna didn’t realize that the batter he was facing with one out and the bases loaded in a one-run game was Alex Rodriguez, a living legend who had made his own first appearance in the big leagues before Osuna was even born. He was already nervous, but the recognition of just who his opponent was gave him a moment of pause. Only a moment, though. Then the focus set in. He was out there with a job to do.

Osuna’s first pitch missed, a changeup in the dirt. The second, too, missed, a fastball off the outside corner. He paused, collected himself. The next pitch was a 95 mph fastball, right in the heart of the zone. A-Rod couldn’t catch up to it.

Recalling the moment in a profile with SportsNet, Osuna remembers thinking OK, “this guy can’t hit my fastball. Not right now.”

So he threw another one, this time on the outside corner. A-Rod was frozen. Strike two. He threw another one, hoping to finish him off; A-Rod, now wise to the pitch, fouled it off. And so, for his 2-2 pitch, he threw a changeup—81 mph on the outside corner, right at the knees for strike three.

A-Rod put his hands on his hips, incredulous. He walked away with a shake of the head and a pointed look back at the mound. A chorus of boos rained down from the Yankee Stadium seats. Osuna, expression unchanged, threw the ball back to the dugout. They were going to have to save that one for him. He still had work to do.



On Tuesday night, almost exactly three years after his wildly improbable trial-by-fire debut, Roberto Osuna took the mound in the bottom of the ninth, entrusted with the Toronto’s two-run lead over the Orioles—no longer as an unproven rookie, thrown into the frying pan out of sheer necessity, but as an established and elite major league closer, the Jays’ most trusted bullpen arm. It took him all of 15 pitches to retire the top of the Orioles’ lineup and record the save—his 100th. At 23 years and 62 days old, he became the youngest player ever to reach that benchmark, beating Francisco Rodriguez’s record by well over a year.

As incredible as Osuna’s level of late-inning dominance has been at such a young age, it’s made all the more impressive by just how unlikely the journey was that led him there. He was born and grew up in the Mexican state of Sinaloa, infamous in recent years for its drug trafficking and violence. There was some history of baseball in Osuna’s family—his estranged uncle, Antonio Osuna, pitched for ten years in the major leagues, while his father, Roberto Sr., pitched for 22 years in the Mexican League—but the path was anything but certain. As an infant, little Roberto would play with his father’s teammates, watching each game intently. But after injuries and surgery, Roberto Sr.’s arm gave out. And unlike a two-decade major-league veteran, Roberto Sr. did not have millions in the bank. He had devoted his life to baseball; now, baseball was gone.

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So he found work wherever he could. There was never enough of it. The family of six often ate only one meal a day. They lived in a tiny house—a kitchen and one bedroom with one bed. Roberto and his father took turns sleeping on the floor. At 12, the young Osuna dropped out of school to support the family, working with his father as a farmhand.

But there was just enough time in the day, just enough room in their home’s small yard, for Osuna to practice his pitching. By 14, not only was he determined to make the major leagues, he’d already thrown a no-hitter in a national youth baseball competition, hitting 94 on the radar gun. By 16, he’d signed with Mexico City’s Diablos Rojos, the most prestigious team in the Mexican League; within a year of that, he was signed by the Blue Jays for enough money to get his family a comfortable house.

Osuna’s career since then has been largely defined by success. Every year the stats have gotten better, the pitches more polished. You would never know from watching him record a five-out save in Game 5 of the 2015 ALDS that only two years before he’d thought his baseball career was over after suffering a torn UCL. You would never know, looking at his 2017 pitching line—3.38 ERA, 0.859 WHIP, 39 saves—about the severe anxiety that caused him to miss several games mid-season. Occupying one of the most high-pressure positions in the sport, Osuna has continued to overcome, continued to improve—just as he always has.

Interviewed after Tuesday’s game, Osuna emphasized three things. He expressed his gratitude to God and to his family for giving him the strength to get where he is. He talked about how hard he has worked, and how hard he will continue to work in the future. He talked about how proud he was of himself.

And while saves are a stat of debatable merit, and while the number 100 is an entirely arbitrary measuring-point, his pride in what he has done is richly deserved. Osuna’s achievement deserves whatever recognition we give it. The historic start to his career is not only a reflection of his extraordinary talent as a baseball player. It’s a reflection of extraordinary effort to overcome yet more extraordinary odds. A story like this one is absolutely worth celebrating.

The Yankees ended up winning that game on April 8th, 2015: Osuna left the bases loaded, but the Jays couldn’t get to Andrew Miller in the ninth. After the game was over, Alex Rodriguez approached Osuna to congratulate him on making it to the big leagues. “You can be the next Mariano Rivera,” A-Rod told him—another closer who overcame poverty and circumstance to become an all-time great. Osuna may not be there yet, but he’s well on his way.