Alex Anthopoulos gave assistant general manager Andrew Tinnish a specific task this winter. While he was busy finding minor-league free agents to stock Triple-A Buffalo and show the folks in Western New York some love, make sure he signed at least one reliever who could contribute at the major-league level.
This was not like previous seasons, where part of the emphasis was on bringing in veteran relievers who could contribute enough that they could land a compensatory draft pick the next winter. Plus, Anthopoulos wanted something other than a slop-thrower, too. He didn't want a 'thumber,' in baseball parlance. His predecessor as Blue Jays general manager, J.P. Ricciardi, had more than his share of swings and misses but to this day Anthopoulos credits Ricciardi with an uncanny ability to build a bullpen off the scrap heap; to catch lightning in the bottle – to find guys like Neil Wagner.
Wagner took the loss in Sunday's 6-4 setback to the Texas Rangers but the truth is you can hang the setback on starter Josh Johnson. One day after an 18-inning game, Johnson could only give his teammates five innings, done in finally by a 34-pitch fifth. Johnson and catcher Josh Thole kept trying to get home-plate umpire Gary Darling to give them a little more respect on the corners. It didn't work, and manager John Gibbons had to call up the bullpen two innings earlier than he'd preferred. Wagner who gave up the go-ahead run on a 1-2 fastball to Adrian Beltre, with two out in the seventh – the first run allowed by the 29-year-old right-hander in 7 2/3 innings since being called up from Buffalo.
Wagner could be returned to Triple-A in order to make room for Tuesday's starter, Chien-Ming Wang, since Wagner still has options remaining. Safe to say, however, that he and left-hander Juan Perez have pitched themselves into responsible roles since they were brought up from Buffalo on May 29.
During that time, the bullpen has emerged as a strength in a season of diminished returns. True, Blue Jays relievers had a streak of 18 scoreless innings end Saturday when closer Casey Janssen suffered his first blown save of the season, while Perez was on in relief Sunday in the sixth when Thole's throwing error allowed the tying run to cross the plate before Beltre took Wagner deep and fastball-hunting David Murphy did the same thing on Dustin McGowan's first pitch of the eighth. But the Blue Jays haven't felt as bullish about a bullpen since Anthopoulos took over as GM. "We have a lot of ways to attack you," Gibbons said.
Perez, a funky left-hander and another Tinnish find, joined the team on the same day as Wagner, a former 21st-round draft pick of the Cleveland Indians out of North Dakota State who can hit 97 miles an hour on the radar gun and is a different pitcher since shelving a curveball that he featured while wandering through the minors with three other organizations. Until Sunday, the two had combined for 14 1/3 scoreless innings, part of the reason the Blue Jays bullpen had allowed just three earned runs in its previous 40 1/3 innings. If McGowan, who was used on back-to-back days Saturday and Sunday, can somehow manage to stay healthy, it will truly be a bounty of power arms. Unexpected in some ways, since Sergio Santos is not part of the group.
"My stuff's always been there," McGowan said Saturday, after he was reinstated off the 60-day disabled list following 10 games on a rehabilitation assignment. "Stuff-wise, I'm the same. By my command needs to get better."
Believe it or not, the 31-year-old McGowan – who has thrown all of 22 1/3 major-league innings since 2008 mostly due to a confounding series of shoulder injuries – has told Anthopoulos he'd still like to try and earn a spot in the rotation next season. For now, though, he is part of a bullpen that plays into Gibbons's main strength as a manager.