TORONTO - Facing a stretch of 16 games against teams that have bolted from the gate with authority this season, this was not the tone the Toronto Blue Jays intended to set starting a homestand.
Coming off an indifferent 10-game road trip, the Jays looked more pretender than contender Monday as they embarked on a possible make-or-break stretch with a sloppy 7-1 defeat at the hands of the Tampa Bay Rays.
If Toronto thought it had its hands full with the Los Angeles Angels, Oakland A’s and Minnesota Twins last week how will they fare against the likes of Tampa, the New York Yankees, the New York Mets, the Texas Rangers and the Baltimore Orioles in rapid succession?
Well, for openers, not very well.
The Jays kicked the ball around behind starting pitcher Brandon Morrow, who surrendered only one earned run of the six that crossed the plate while he was in the game.
Toronto couldn’t make anything happen offensively -- sound familiar? -- against a Tampa pitching lineup cobbled together after starter Jeff Niemann was knocked out of the game early.
In all, the Jays managed just four hits, all singles, against six Tampa pitchers including Cesar Ramos, who worked three innings and got the win after Niemann left with a fracture to his right fibula, an injury that will keep him sidelined for a few months.
“(The Rays) threw strikes, they made quality pitches when needed and we couldn’t bunch together any offence,” Jays manager John Farrell said.
“We’ve issued far too many walks. Twenty five over the four days in Minnesota, followed up what happened tonight (six walks, total). I didn’t think Brandon had the power to his stuff that he has typically had. When you’re issuing that many walks, we’re creating issues for ourselves to battle through and around.
“When you get into a five-out inning, you’re going to have an extended pitch count.”
Niemann exited just prior to the bottom of the second inning after taking a hard-hit ball off his right ankle in the first. Rays manager Joe Maddon was forced to reach into his bullpen for lefty Ramos, who got a couple of quick outs then lost the strike zone briefly, walking Colby Rasmus and J.P. Arencibia in succession.
Ramos got two quick strikes on left-handed hitter Kelly Johnson, but Johnson then rapped the 0-2 offering for a single into left field, scoring Rasmus for the game’s first run. It was the first, and last, sign of life from Toronto's offence.
Meanwhile Morrow, after an early bout of control problems, was cruising along with a hit-less shutout through four innings before the sky came tumbling down upon him.
Tampa's second baseman Will Rhymes drilled a double down the third-base line to lead off the fifth. He went to third on catcher Chris Gimenez’s flyball to right field, then scored on shortstop Elliott Johnson’s single up the middle against a drawn-in infield.
That was just the beginning for the Rays.
Later in that same half-inning, with runners at first and second, first baseman Adam Lind couldn’t handle Matt Joyce’s ground ball down the first-base line. The ball kicked off Lind's glove, and by the time he retrieved it, his throw to get Joyce, sliding into first, was not in time. Ben Zobrist scored all the way from second on the play.
From there, things went from bad to worse.
Carlos Pena swung and missed at a strike three that would have ended the inning but the breaking ball bounced in the dirt and got away from catcher Arencibia. That loaded the bases for Luke Scott, who singled in two runs. Sean Rodriguez then followed with a two-run double, completing a six-run inning for Tampa.
“The two extra outs in the fifth inning loomed large,” Farrell said. “The two base hits that followed the strike three that got away from J.P. and the ground ball to the right side gave them the chance to put six on the board.”
In the ninth, the Jays put runners on first and third with nobody out, but reliever Jake McGee struck out the last three men he faced to end the game.
If Lind didn’t have bad luck, he’d have no luck at all.
Relegated to eighth in the batting order last week, Lind showed up at the Rogers Centre Monday and found he had been bumped back up to the cleanup spot because Niemann, a guy he has owned in the past, was slated to pitch for Tampa.
Going into Monday’s game, Lind was 13-for-28 (.464) with 3 HR, 9 RBI, an on-base percentage of .531 and a slugging percentage of .929 against the Rays starter.
With two on and one out in the first Monday, Lind squared up a Niemann pitch, hitting it on a line off the pitcher’s ankle. Niemann retrieved the ball and tossed Lind out at first.
The Rays hurler stayed in the game briefly but left to get X-rays at the hospital before the Jays batted in the bottom of the second.
Bottom line, Lind had knocked his good-luck charm out of the game and didn’t even get a measly single for his trouble. That doesn’t even take into account the two errors he made on the field that helped Tampa build its lead.