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Toronto Blue Jays pitcher Steve Delabar led American League relievers in strikeouts, with 47, as of Wednesday night. (Frank Gunn/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Toronto Blue Jays pitcher Steve Delabar led American League relievers in strikeouts, with 47, as of Wednesday night. (Frank Gunn/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Litmus test awaits vaunted Jays bullpen Add to ...

The pitchers gather in the outfield along the foul line before every series, sequestered from the rest of the team. Closer Casey Janssen or veteran Darren Oliver will summon the group; when on the road, they’re dressed and working out before some teammates have arrived at the clubhouse, some four hours before game time.

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From the infield, an observer can hear an occasional laugh, one ribbing another, some faint chatter, but they are focused on getting the work done, and they come off the field sweating.

The ritual has become part of the bonding process, especially for a bullpen that has performed as the major league’s most effective of late, stringing together 24 consecutive scoreless innings, allowing just five earned runs in 67 1/3 innings since May 31, holding opponents to a batting average under .150. The only bedrock in a tumultuous Blue Jays season, the relief staff ranks fifth among the 30 major-league teams with a 3.00 earned-run average, and that number is inflated by the extraordinary workload – 264 innings, tops in the majors. By comparison, Kansas City’s bullpen has logged 175 innings, a difference of nearly 10 complete games.

Little wonder they have become united in the face of adversity.

“We’re kind of like brothers now, so we stick together,” said right-hander Steve Delabar, first among American League relievers with 46 strikeouts. “If we get in the game with runners on base, we want to get out of it without giving up anything. It’s the worst feeling for a reliever to give up somebody else’s runs, kind of like shooting yourself in the foot. We’re a tight group, one big machine down there.”

Anchored by the bullpen, the Blue Jays pitching has seemingly come together during the present eight-game win streak against the Chicago White Sox (last in the AL Central, one win), Texas Rangers (mass batting slump, four-game sweep) and Colorado Rockies (minus injured Troy Tulowitzki, on unfamiliar artificial turf, three-game sweep), and the fans are revving up again.

Shortstop Jose Reyes will likely rejoin the lineup on Monday, Edwin Encarnacion is bashing home runs, Josh Johnson’s throwing his fastball 95 miles an hour, Esmil Rogers and Chien-Ming Wang buttressed the rotation, and the clubhouse, made up of strangers in a strange land two months ago, is starting to percolate.

Now comes the test of legitimacy.

The next four opponents, in order, are Baltimore, Tampa Bay, Boston and Detroit. Based on runs scored, they ranked this way in the AL, going into Thursday’s games: 1. Boston, 2. Baltimore, 3. Detroit, 5. Tampa Bay. The Baltimore Orioles, at Rogers Centre for a three-game series starting Friday, ranks first in hits, doubles, home runs and slugging percentage.

Recently, knuckleballer R.A. Dickey encouraged the team to attain a record of .500 by the end of June, a goal he would help accomplish ahead of schedule, on Friday, with his start against the Orioles. With a win, the AL East could become the only division in baseball with every team batting at least .500, and therein rests the Jays’ challenge. To date, they’re 12-20 against AL East opponents and of their next four, only Detroit plays in another division.

While in June the rotation has taken a significant slice out of its fat ERA, the bullpen will inevitably be called to the rescue against the lineups of heavy hitters over the next two weeks. The present mix of four left-handers and four right-handers constitutes a luxury that allows manager John Gibbons to match-up against opposing hitters as needed, a powerful weapon especially when the starting pitcher endures until later innings, as has been occurring recently in contrast to the first two months of the season.

“It starts with the starters,” said Mark Buehrle, the winning pitcher on Wednesday. “If we at least go deep into games, it lines everybody up where they’re used to pitching in a role. They can be ready for it. Early when we weren’t going deep, it threw everybody off. They were throwing in situations they weren’t ready for.”

Few appreciate the present roll more than the righty/lefty set-up combination of Delabar and left-hander Brett Cecil.

Delabar was out of pitching a few years ago, the victim of a broken elbow, working as a part-time teacher in Kentucky. Cecil, a first-round draft choice of the Jays, was an effective starter in 2010 and an ineffective starter in 2011, overweight then underweight, a part-time starter, a full-time reliever and, come the spring of this season, odds-against to make the Opening Day roster.

Each is dedicated to a weighted-ball workout program which they credit with restoring precious velocity and endowing the strength to endure a full season. Cecil is on an extraordinary, club-record run of facing 38 consecutive batters without allowing a hit, and Delabar led AL relievers in strikeouts with 47 as of Wednesday night.

“I have always been confident in my stuff,” Cecil said. “But there [were things] I needed to work on, and I’m glad they gave me a chance. I’ve appreciated it every day.”

The appreciation is reciprocal.

“Once we’re into Delabar, Cecil and Janssen, it’s game over,” said reliever Neil Wagner.

When ahead after seven innings, the club is 26-0. No other team in the majors can make that claim. Getting to that point was the challenge in April-May.

UP NEXT...

Baltimore Orioles (42-31) at Toronto Blue Jays (35-36)

Friday, 7:07p.m. (EDT): RHP Jason Hammel (7-4, 5.24 earned-run average) vs. RHP R.A. Dickey (6-8, 4.90)

Saturday, 1:07p.m.: RHP Miguel Gonzalez (5-2, 3.75) vs. RHP Chien-Ming Wang (1-0, 3.14)

Sunday, 1:07p.m.: TBA vs. RHP Josh Johnson (0-2, 4.38)

Notes

Of the seven games between the teams this season, five have been decided by one run. The Orioles have a 4-3 edgeoverall, and a 3-2 record in the one-run affairs. … The first three-game series, in Baltimore, instigated a three-win, 10-loss run that left the Jays in the hole they’ve spent June trying to dig out of. … The Orioles are 17-15 vs. the AL East. … The Saturday and Sunday games will be played during the day; the Orioles have an 11-4 record in day games on the road. … The Orioles hitters have approached Dickey patiently and he’s 0-2 against the team this season, allowing 15 hits, eight walks and 10 runs in 12 2/3 innings. … Chris Davis of the O’s leads the majors with 26 HR, 20-year-old Manny Machado leads with 33 doubles, 10 more than Davis. Machado is on pace to establish a major-league record for doubles. … Orioles closer Jim Johnson gave up four runs in the ninth inning on May 26 for his fourth blown save and a loss, Munenori Kawasaki’s walk-off double in turn leading to his YouTube moment. … Johnson also lost to the Jays on April 24, allowing a run in the 11th inning. In 4 2/3 innings, Johnson’s allowed seven hits, two walks, a hit-by-pitch and five runs.Tom Maloney

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