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Bullpen’s best failing when Blue Jays need them most

Baltimore Orioles' Hyun Soo Kim rounds the bases after hitting a two-run home run against Toronto Blue Jays pitcher Roberto Osuna during ninth inning American League baseball action in Toronto on Wednesday, Sept.28, 2016.


Over the past week, the Toronto Blue Jays have enjoyed what might be the best run of starting pitching in team history.

In each of the last seven contests, Toronto's starter has left the game having given up no more than one earned run. In terms of baseball likelihood, this is Halley's comet passing through an eclipse.

Nevertheless, the scrappy, never-say-live Jays have managed to go 4-3 in those games. Alarmingly, the blame does not go to a couple of scrubs in the bullpen who've been pushed into too-deep water. It falls on the shutdown portion of that unit – the seventh, eighth and ninth inning guys.

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Wednesday night's collapse was, front to back, the most unnerving yet.

The starter, Francisco Liriano, was masterful over 6 1/3 scoreless innings.

When Liriano was acquired in July, it was to serve as Aaron Sanchez's human leaning post and, eventually, some insurance in relief.

Instead, he's been a de facto ace during September, giving up no more than two earned runs in any start. This is the sort of renewed-in-fresh-waters story that should be getting pushed out as a reason the Jays have a real postseason shot.

But eventually Liriano has to leave the game. And that's when things are beginning to go sideways.

The seventh inning should have been Joaquin Benoit's. He's spending his time hobbling around the clubhouse on crutches after tearing a calf muscle while running toward a brawl. They say he could return in two weeks. Unless he's sleeping in a hyperbaric chamber, I would not hold my breath.

Either Joe Biagini or Brett Cecil will now occupy the rather large space Benoit once filled. Both are adequate replacements, but considering that Benoit had allowed only one run in 19 appearances with Toronto, neither is likely to match their predecessor's level.

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On Wednesday, Cecil did the trick. As he came out of the game, a 2-0 Jays lead still intact, it was smiles all around. Manager John Gibbons looked damned close to hugging him.

Because when you hand a two-run lead in orderly, top-of-the-inning fashion to your set-up man and closer, it's supposed to be over.

First up was Jason Grilli. The affable 39-year-old has become the cool dad of the Toronto Blue Jays. There's a lot of fist-pumping and woo-hoo'ing whenever he's near a camera.

It's fun to watch. When he's pitching well. He is no longer pitching well.

Grilli gave up a monstrous solo home run to major-league leader Mark Trumbo. It was the second time in three days that he's come in and given up significant ground. Grilli was largely on the hook for Monday's ninth-inning collapse against the Yankees.

"This is what September baseball's like, right?" he said lamely afterward.

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But one run should still have been enough for Roberto Osuna.

A great deal has been made this year and last about the 21-year-old closer's poise. Each week, we're fed a new statistic about how no Jays pitcher yet so young has managed to do the things Osuna's done. He's enjoying the prerogatives of early success. A shy, diffident young man just a year ago, he's begun to adopt the closer's traditional sneer off the field.

Sometimes a man fits the role. Sometimes the role fits him. You're beginning to worry if, after a very long season, Osuna is trapped somewhere in-between.

It was at this point in 2015 that Osuna admitted he felt tired. He blew his last save of the season and was ragged in the playoffs. The Jays didn't lose anything because of Osuna, but he didn't do much to help them to win.

Welcome to déjà vu all over again.

In recent days, he's not throwing as hard. He's shaking off catcher Russell Martin's signals. He no longer seems capable of putting up a clean inning.

Everyone's got a theory as to why what is obvious – that Osuna is weary – is not all that obvious, and that everything's just fine.

"He's a very aggressive pitcher, he attacks them, they know that," Gibbons said before Wednesday's game. "So they get after him, too, they swing early in the count a lot of them. That's part of it."

This would not be helpful explaining Wednesday's epic, nine-pitch encounter with Baltimore pinch-hitter Hyun Soo Kim, which ended with Kim roping one into the right-field stands. Game over.

This wasn't Osuna being overpowered by the middle of the Orioles order. These were the seven-eight-and-nine hitters. Osuna has now given up runs in three of his last six appearances. He's given up hits in five of those games. And we're not talking about grounders snaking through the infield. He's getting hit hard. Suddenly, even his fly balls hit the warning track.

Just in case you weren't concerned enough, the bottom of the ninth was an opportunity to see what this should look like. Baltimore's Zach Britton is currently the best closer in baseball. He has given up one run since April. He faced three Jays hitters, all of whom had mentally struck out long before they stepped into the batter's box.

That's what a closer is supposed to do – awe opponents into despair. Toronto is instead opening an offensive buffet – treat yourself to whatever you'd like.

The result is two sure victories in three days turned into losses and what should have been a wild-card berth already sewn up still in doubt. If Toronto loses to Baltimore on Thursday, the two teams are tied for the final spot, with Detroit close behind. Then it's off to Boston for what's forecast as a weekend of steady rain, game delays and mental anguish. That sounds like the perfect way to set up a winner-take-all encounter on Tuesday, non?

Afterward, like Grilli, Osuna tried hard to sound breezy.

"Stuff like today – it's supposed to happen sometimes," he shrugged. "I'm not worried at all."

You'd say, "Well, that makes one of us" if Osuna didn't look so worried while he said it.

"It's tiring," Grilli said of the long season. "Everybody's tired."

Zach Britton doesn't look tired. That's where the bar is set.

Starting pitching was supposed to be the Jays weakness this season. It has instead been a source of strength, particularly down the stretch.

But it can't last at these historic levels. And it's of no use if the players employed to tie up games have begun to lose their confidence at the key moment.

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