Roberto Osuna's baptism by fire began on April 8 of this year at a chilly Yankee Stadium, when Toronto Blue Jays manager John Gibbons called upon the then-unknown 20-year-old to make his Major League Baseball debut.
It was the second game of the season for the Blue Jays, and the first batter Osuna faced was Alex Rodriguez, the veteran New York Yankee slugger. It was the bottom of the eighth inning, the bases were loaded with one out, and the Jays were trailing by one run.
The rookie proceeded to strike out a startled Rodriguez, who was left standing at the plate with his bat on his shoulder and a "Who is this kid?" expression on his face. Osuna then got the next batter, Stephen Drew, to fly out to right field to keep the game close.
It has continued in a similar fashion all season for the confident Osuna, who grew up dirt poor in Los Mochis, a coastal city in northern Mexico. His ability to throw a fastball with precision was his ticket out; in 2011, when he was only 16, he signed a $1.5-million contract with Toronto.
And for the Blue Jays, it has been money well spent. Since that cold April evening in New York when Osuna flummoxed Rodriguez and became the youngest pitcher in franchise history to appear in a major-league game, the righthander has progressed to the point where he's now the Toronto closer. And he continues to defy the odds against someone so young and inexperienced being able to thrive in such a pressure-packed job on the game's biggest stage.
Not since 20-year-old Terry Forster earned 29 saves with the Chicago White Sox in 1972 has someone so young enjoyed the success that Osuna is having this season with Toronto. Before Forster there was Billy McCool, who saved 21 games at age 20 for the Cincinnati Reds in 1965. Osuna, with 14 saves, is third on that list.
As the Blue Jays head to California to play the Los Angeles Angels in a three-game series that begins Friday night, Osuna's poise while anchoring the back end of the bullpen continues to impress.
"Being 20 years old, and not just pitching in the big leagues but closing in the big leagues – and being successful at doing it – is putting him in a whole other category," marvelled LaTroy Hawkins, Osuna's teammate, who has witnessed a thing or two during his 21-year playing career. "It's incredible. He was in A-ball last year."
Osuna only settled into the closer's role in late June, after manager John Gibbons had found no other reliable options. The year began with another raw rookie, 20-year-old Miguel Castro, as the ninth-inning man. That didn't last, and Castro is now in Colorado, traded to the Rockies in the Troy Tulowitzki deal. Veteran Brett Cecil was given an audition, and he, too, didn't work out.
So Gibbons started handing the ball in high-leverage, late-inning situations to Osuna – almost by default – and the results have been extraordinary. Osuna has pitched in 52 games this season, and finished 26. He has an overall record of 1-4, an earned-run average of 1.98, and those 14 saves in only 15 opportunities. Among American League relievers, he is tied for sixth in innings pitched (54.2) and 11th in strikeouts (58).
And Osuna appears to be getting stronger as the season progresses. Over his last 26 2/3 innings pitched – a span of 26 appearances – he has fanned 37 batters. Not bad for a player who was limited to just eight minor-league starts last season after recovering from Tommy John ligament-replacement surgery.
Gibbons said he never thought he would be relying on a rookie closer in August as his team battles the Yankees for supremacy in the AL East.
"I don't know that it's ever happened before," Gibbons said. "There's probably been some young ones, I don't know if they've been that young. And he's a guy coming off Tommy John, not too far removed from that. He came out of the fall league but he's really not pitched at high levels for any length of time.
"But we really didn't know what we had, either, as far as who was really going to do that role for us. That was kind of up in the air."
Hawkins, at age 42 the oldest player in MLB this season, still chuckles at the recollection of his pitching debut. It was on April 29, 1995, in a starter's role with the Minnesota Twins against the Baltimore Orioles. Brady Anderson, the first batter Hawkins would face, hit a triple. Harold Baines would later connect on a first-inning home run. Hawkins would last all of 1 2/3 innings, surrendering seven runs off seven hits.
It wasn't until 2000 that Hawkins found his true calling as a dependable reliever, and he now has appeared in more 1,000 MLB games, with 127 saves to his credit.
In Osuna, Hawkins sees somebody who used baseball as a means of an escape a tough upbringing. Osuna had to quit school at age 12 to work in order to help support his family. During the day he worked in farm fields, harvesting potatoes and tomatoes, and at night he pursued his love of baseball, learning how to pitch.
At 16, Osuna turned pro in the Mexican League, where his dad pitched for 22 years. His uncle, Antonio Osuna, was also a pitcher who played more than 400 major-league games over 11 seasons with five different clubs.
"I had to do a lot of things [while growing up], but it's part of my life, part of everything," Osuna said. "It was what I had to do in my life."
Hawkins was raised in Gary, Ind., once the murder capital of the U.S. His half-brother is still serving a 27-year sentence for his role in a carjacking and the rape of a 19-year-old woman.
"I just sent him a card," Hawkins said. "He's turning 40 on the 22nd."
Hawkins believes his upbringing helped prepare him for the rigours of pro baseball, a scenario that he thinks is also benefitting Osuna as adapts to his high-pressure role as a closer.
"I've always said, guys who are from rough areas, they're comfortable being uncomfortable," Hawkins said. "When you're walking around in your neighborhood, you don't walk around 'la la la la la la la' with your head in the clouds. You're aware of your surroundings.
"Pitching in the big leagues is nothing when compared to living where I did. Trying to live and survive in the inner city… that's stress."
When he signed with the Blue Jays and moved to Florida to start playing in the minor leagues, Osuna did not speak a word of English.
"I remember my second day in Florida, one of the pitching coaches asked me what was my name," Osuna said. "And I said, 'Okay.' That was my answer because that's all I heard everybody saying – okay, okay."
Believing it was important to learn the language in order to succeed in baseball, Osuna doubled up on the English-speaking courses he and some of his teammates enrolled in while in Florida. Today he speaks the language almost flawlessly.
With the season winding down and the games taking on added meaning as the Blue Jays vie for their first post-season appearance in 21 years, the pressure will only grow for Osuna. He says he can handle it.
I take the ninth inning like it's the sixth or seventh inning," he said. "I don't think about if it's a one-run lead or who I'm going to face. I just try to make a good pitch, and that's it."