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OPINION: Dominant bullpen setting tone for Jays

If Brett Cecil was trying to be modest upon learning he’d made the first all-star team of his career, he nailed it.

“”Every guy in that bullpen down there deserves to be on the team,” the left-handed reliever said when he got the news on Saturday. “I can’t say enough about those guys. They’ve done a heck of a job for the whole season.”

Thing is, he’s not exaggerating.

A collection of old men, cast-offs, operating table survivors and triple-A retreads have combined to put up numbers nearly unmatched in Toronto Blue Jays history.

Honestly, give these guys a nickname or something.

As a unit Mr. Bull Pen is the most dominant pitcher in the American League. If all eight members showed up in New York to take on the National League in the mid-summer classic later this month chances are they’d do as well as any other collection of arms that AL manager Jim Leyland of the Detroit Tigers might toss out there.

Heading into Tuesday night’s game, Blue Jays relievers have combined for a league-leading ERA of 2.93, which would be the best in club history.

They also lead the league with their WHIP of 1.16 and the stingy .224 batting average opponents have managed against them far this season.

More significantly they’ve accumulated their totals while pitching 319.2 innings; the most in all of baseball as they’ve had to compensate for the club’s highly-touted starting rotation, who have struggled all season.

It’s been noted.

“I can tell you, frankly, when I’ve been on past teams there are guys when you’re coming out of the game you hope are coming in and there are guys who hope are not coming in,” said R.A. Dickey whose 122 innings pitched lead all Blue Jays starters. “Well, take your pick down there. Whoever they march out of that bullpen I feel fully confident are going to strand the runners that are on there and give us a chance to win the game and that’s not normal.”

There’s all kinds of credit to go around, but some should be directed to Blue Jays general manager Alex Anthopoulos who built the unit with several judicious rolls of the dice.

Cecil was a struggling converted starter that barely made the team out of spring training; Steve Delabar — who could well join him in All-Star game depending on how fan voting for the final roster spot ends up — had three times as many screws (nine) holding his surgically-repaired right elbow together than he did major league wins (three) when he was acquired by Toronto last season.

Aaron Loup is a converted sidearm thrower who has yet to play a full year in the big-leagues while newcomers like Neil Wagner and Juan Perez are minor league journeymen stumbling into career-making seasons.

Oliver, their “captain” is 42 years old.

“They might be surprising some people,” says Oliver. “But once you’re out there and see them throwing every day from spring training until now, you know they have good stuff.”

Anthopoulos says a special dollop of credit should be directed to Blue Jays manager John Gibbons, who seems to have the magic touch when it comes to his relievers, although he waves it off — “they’re pitching great, it makes my job easy.”

But the pitchers respect Gibbons because he doesn’t get them up to throw more than absolutely necessary and he has a knack for easing them into situations and matchups that they can excel in and build confidence.

“You want the manager to trust you and a lot of times, based on situations, you can tell if he trusts you or not,” says closer Casey Janssen who had his breakout year pitching for Gibbons in 2007 when the Blue Jays bullpen had the second-best ERA in the American League. “Some guys were maybe thrown into the fire more than on paper in spring training we would have thought they would have been, but you end up pitching well and you get a better role and everyone pitches well and you come to find out it is a strength.”

Say Anthopolous of his manager’s deft hand: “I think some managers have a feel for it and some guys don’t. (Gibbons) has very good feel. Knowing when to get guys up — it’s timing, which is a feel thing. Having the confidence to give guys days off when they’re banged up and not over-using them … I don’t think it’s a coincidence that every time he’s been here, the bullpens have performed really well and guys have left and haven’t continued to perform as well.”

And you can’t beat the price.

The five starters that the Blue Jays broke training camp with were supposed to be the backbone of the club and are paid like it with Josh Johnson, Mark Buerhrle, Dickey, J.A. Happ and Brandon Morrow slated to earn $42,450,000 this year.

Given they’ve combined for 373.1 innings pitched — an average of less than six innings a start — their efforts have cost the Blue Jays $113,776 an inning so far.

And the results haven’t been pretty: On the whole the Blue Jays starters have the second-worst ERA in the AL at 5.01 and have pitched the second fewest innings.

It’s the exact opposite of what’s going on in the bullpen, where the innings totals are high, the run totals low and the costs rock bottom.

Cecil leads the bullpen with 44.2 innings during which he’s posted some outrageous numbers, including an ERA of 1.81, ninth among AL relievers with a minimum 20 innings pitched and a WHIP of 0.87, also ninth.

And he’s doing it for the grand price of $510,000 this season.

The top five Jays relievers in terms of innings pitched — Cecil, Loup, Delabar, Janssen and Esmil Rogers are slated to make just $5.9 million this year, with $3.9 million of that going into Janssen’s pocket.

They’ve thrown 184 innings, providing their services for just $32,100 an inning.

Oliver and Janssen are the most expensive arms in the bullpen and in some ways nearly overshadowed by the likes of Cecil or hard-throwing right-handed set-up man Delabar who has an ERA of 1.58 over 40 innings and was second in the AL among relievers with 57 strikeouts after the weekend.

Loup (2.05 ERA; 0.98 WHIP in 44 innings) has been equally sharp and consistent.

“I was walking to the park and thinking, ‘who would have thought that Darren and I are the weak links, a little bit,” joked Janssen, who has more than held his own while converting 17-of-18 save opportunities. “It’s impressive.”

But Janssen and Oliver set the tone.

Oliver’s 19 years MLB service time command instant respect while the 31-year-old Janssen is the longest serving Blue Jay pitcher, having been with the organization his entire career.

“They’re resources,” says Wagner, who was called up from triple-A Buffalo in June and held opposing hitters to .211 in his first month. “You see those guys and it’s kind of like in the movie Hoosiers where they measure the rim and it’s 10-feet tall for [the other team] too. Janssen and Oliver are great because they help you remember they’re just hitters and they have strengths and weaknesses and I don’t have to do anything different than what I was doing in Buffalo.”

And now at least one his bullpen mates and quite possibly two will be heading to New York for the all-star game. It makes for pleasant work environment, with each successful outing leading to the next.

“Everyone knows that anytime the phone rings it could be anyone of us,” says Janssen. “There’s a confidence that any one of eight guys can go in there and do the job … zeroes are contagious.”