TORONTO - In many ways, this Wednesday night 6-5 Blue Jay loss in the opener of a mini-series against the Rays was Toronto’s season in a nutshell. Absent the Jose Bautista heroics, of course.
It featured inconsistent starting pitching by Jesse Litsch, some absolutely dreadful infield defence by Edwin Encarnacion, some outstanding relief pitching and a typically determined comeback — okay, one that fell short — by the Jays in a game that had lost-cause written all over it.
The six-game win streak that had allowed the Jays to poke their noses above the .500 level for the first time since April 15, came crashing down around their ears in a hail of sloppy pitching, with butchery in the field to match.
When he’s at his best, Litsch is a strike-thrower, pounding the bottom of the strike zone, spotting his sinking fastball and putting hitters away with his cutter and change.
He did none of that last night. He set the ragged tone immediately, throwing first-pitch strikes to only four of the first 13 hitters he faced. By that time, he was already trailing 5-0. And it wasn’t as if he was missing close.
Worse for Litsch, one of the best fielding pitchers in the league, was the fact he made two errors that contributed to his own demise.
To his credit, he did settle down and gutted out two more innings without further damage. Meanwhile, as has been Toronto’s habit, the offence did not give up, pecking away for a run in the fourth, another in the fifth and two more in the sixth to put themselves in a position for a full-blown comeback.
By the bottom of the seventh, the Jays had clawed their way to within a pair of runs. With one, out Yunel Escobar walked. Corey Patterson struck out for the second out and then Tampa manager Joe Maddon intentionally walked Bautista to put two men on for Aaron Hill, who had already driven in a pair of runs. Hill’s looping fly into right field held up just long enough for Matt Joyce to make a nice catch.
Rajai Davis doubled to lead off the ninth and later scored on Escobar’s groundout, but that’s where the rally fizzled.
The elephant in the room all season has been corner infield defence, centred largely on the shoulders of Encarnacion. He was in the middle of the defensive mayhem while he was charged with only two official errors, he made at least four other misplays that you would expect a major-league first baseman to handle without difficulty.
With Adam Lind on the shelf, Encarnacion is pretty much all the Jays have at first base right now and it’s hard to believe they can compete effectively with that kind of defence.
Lind may not be a gold-glover at the position but right now, he can’t get back into uniform fast enough.
Unfortunately, it is on defence where Lind still feels some discomfort in his lower back and manager John Farrell was saying before the game that they may need to give Lind some extra days off, perhaps as a DH, until he’s fully recovered.
Litsch struggled with his control early on but was bailed out of a first-inning spot of trouble when third baseman Jayson Nix flagged down a hot liner from the bat of Evan Longoria with two men on. Nix threw from his knees to double up Ben Zobrist at second base to end the inning.
He was not so lucky in the second when the Jays committed three errors and the Rays scored three times on only one base hit, a single.
On that single to right, with runners at second and third. Bautista, trying to keep Elliott Johnson at first while conceding both runs, hit the second base bag with his throw. Litsch then tried to get Johnson at second and threw wildly into centre field. After John Jaso walked, Sam Fuld’s sacrifice attempt was botched by Encarnacion, whose throw pulled Litsch off the bag.
In the third, Litsch hit Longoria with a pitch, then Joyce made it 5-0, drilling his seventh homer. After Upton singled, Litsch’s pickoff attempt was not handled by Encarnacion and went for a two-base error. Upton later scored on a sacrifice fly.