Thursday night at Tropicana Field against the Tampa Bay Rays, veteran starter Mark Buehrle took the mound for the Toronto Blue Jays to continue his remarkable pursuit of a 14th consecutive 200-plus inning season.
At the same time, teammate Casey Janssen took his place on the bench in the Toronto bullpen, fretting that his continued existence as the Blue Jays closer might be rapidly drawing to a close.
During his eight years in a Blue Jays uniform, Janssen has been the consummate professional, always one of the more thoughtful and approachable players in the clubhouse and, on the field, one of the most determined. And it is for those reasons that the struggles he has endured this year, especially during the second half of the season when his masterful control has often eluded him, have made it all a bitter pill for Janssen to swallow.
The Blue Jays (72-67) would pull off the rare three-game sweep of the Rays (67-74) at the Trop when Colby Rasmus came off the bench to strike a satisfying pinch-hit home run in the top of the 10th off Tampa reliever Steve Geltz to stake Toronto to a 1-0 victory and its fifth win in a row.
And it was Janssen who was tabbed by Gibbons to preserve the win and the veteran came through, despite issuing a one-out walk to pinch-hitter David DeJesus. Kevin Kiermaier then hit into a fielder’s choice before Janssen got Ben Zobrist to fly out to left to pick up his 21st save of the season.
But more often than not these days, Toronto manager John Gibbons has been signalling for rookie starter-in-waiting Aaron Sanchez to fill Janssen’s role in critical save situations.
In three of the past four save situations the Blue Jays have been in heading into Thursday’s game, Janssen was only called upon once to shut down the opposition in the ninth inning. Twice, Gibbons has gone to the 22-year-old Sanchez, while utilizing lefty Brett Cecil on the other occasion.
And Sanchez has been great, posting a 2-1 record and two saves with a 1.52 earned-run average and 22 strikeouts over 23 2/3 innings.
So who can blame Gibbons for his choices as he is desperately pulling all the strings he can to try and maintain Toronto’s slender playoff hopes heading into the final three weeks of the season?
Sanchez, hands down, has been the more dependable arm since he first got called up to the majors from Triple-A back on July 22.
And with the calendar working against the Blue Jays in their hopes of fighting back to snag one of the American League wild-card berths, Gibbons – while never saying that Janssen is no longer his closer – does not have the luxury of allowing Janssen to continue to try to work out his problems in critical situations on the mound.
“My priority is to win the game,” Gibbons said before the game, his feathers starting to ruffle amid constant chatter about the state of the team’s closer. “That’s the name of the game in Major League Baseball.”
Janssen understands, but it does not make it any easier to accept.
Further muddying the waters, Janssen will become a free agent at the year’s end and, at the age of 32, will need all the leverage he can in order to strike another healthy deal.
“Pretty much I just have to be ready to pitch and make the most of every opportunity that I get and see where that takes me,” Janssen said during a soul-searching interview with reporters in the visiting team’s dugout prior to Thursday’s game.
“Sanchez is a heck of a pitcher; he’s thrown the heck out of the ball. And right now we’re just concerned with wins. And if he gives us the best chance to win, then put him in the game.”
That final sentence was not an easy one for Janssen to utter, having proven his worth the past couple of seasons, amassing a career-high 34 saves in 36 save opportunities last season and 22 of 24 in 2012.
“For the last 2 1/2years I’ve been that guy,” Janssen said.
“I’ve had some good innings, I’ve had some bad innings along the way. But right now we’re in a situation where we just need to win games. And Gibby’s in the position to do what’s best for the team.”
This year has been like a tale of two seasons for Janssen, who racked up 14 saves in 16 save opportunities prior to the all-star break, with a 1.23 ERA. Post all-star, Janssen has slipped, his ERA an unsightly 7.47 with six saves in eight save opportunities.
Given his track record with the team, Janssen was asked if he felt he might be afforded a bit of a longer leash by his employer.
“I would love to win a championship here,” Janssen said after a lengthy pause.
“However we can go about doing that, I’m all in for. If there’s days when the most important inning – or the inning he sees me fit best – is the sixth, seventh or eighth inning, I’m all for it.
“I want to pitch, I love to pitch, I love to close. I just want to show everyone what I can do and the pitcher I am every single time I go out there.”
Janssen insists he’s close. Now if he can just get the chance to prove it.
Note: Toronto reliever Chad Jenkins was in the wrong place at the wrong time while the Rays were taking batting practice before the game. Jenkins was struck in the right hand by a batted ball as he stood in left field and X-rays showed that he suffered a broken bone that will sideline him for the rest of the regular season.
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