ST. PETERSBURG - At a time of the season when the best an also-ran can hope for is to play spoiler, the Blue Jays have taken a different approach. They have become baseball’s version of the Red Cross, nursing broken opponents back to life.
Just look at this trip alone. When the New York Yankees were poised on the brink of disaster, their 10-game lead gone and their season slowly circling the drain, along came the Blue Jays with three gift-wrapped wins to breathe fresh life into their playoff push.
Sunday, the Jays received another humanitarian award for performing successful CPR on the struggling Tampa Bay Rays, donating three more wins to the cause. Nobody’s really sure if the Rays are a patient that can be saved but, gosh darn it, the Blue Jays have done all they could to revive Tampa Bay’s flickering vital signs.
Now the Baltimore Orioles are in urgent need if they are to overtake the Yankees and you can be sure the Blue Jays will perform with Mother Theresa-like courage, bringing their own truly special brand of tonic to Maryland. Teams are now sending police escorts to the airport to make sure the Blue Jay buses make it into town safe and sound, not leaving anything to chance.
Sarcasm aside, this 3-0 loss was the closest thing to compelling baseball the Blue Jays have played on this trip. Chad Jenkins, making his first major-league start, was terrific. Working on a limited pitch count, Jenkins gave up just two hits in his five innings - one of them a prodigious solo home run by B.J. Upton in the first inning.
“He did a very good job,” said manager John Farrell. “From the second inning on, he controlled the bottom of the strike zone. Early on he came out overthrowing a little and some balls were elevated. Still, just one run allowed on two hits.”
“I was a little excited,” said Jenkins. “I caught too much plate with some of my pitches and they hammered them. I got a little lucky because all but one stayed in the yard. After that, I settled down.”
The Jays were clearly emotionally and professionally invested in this one but it didn’t prevent them from going down to their 14th loss in 18 meetings with the Rays this year. They are winless in six games on this trip and now face four games against Baltimore, including a doubleheader Monday.
“We’re all aware of where we are and what has transpired over the last two series,” said Farrell. “We have to continue to go out and execute. There’s no secret formula. We have to continue to compete and we have to control the tempo of the game from the mound.”
Before the game Farrell was asked how hard it is for players to kick up the intensity for these games, given that they have now lost 36 of their last 51 games. Of baseball’s 30 teams, only the Cleveland Indians (13-39) have a worse record since July 29.
“As a group, it’s difficult,” he said. “The one thing we continue to talk to players about, either as individuals or as a group, is not splintering. We don’t want them thinking about October 3 (the final day of the season), when naturally that could be on some guys’ minds.
As we told the players on September 1, this month is still about evaluation. It’s about how they go about their work. It’s about how they perform. A lot of decisions are going to be made this offseason with respect to the roster.
“So, this final month, while we’re having our struggles, that’s when you start to see the true character of individuals emerge.
“Whether it’s June or September, there are going to be days when things are flat. That’s the nature of this game. At the same time, it’s what they can control most, their preparation and the intensity at which they play.
“We haven’t had a lot of (positive) results of late. That’s obvious. But there is an attitude that can be controlled and that’s most important. There is an accepted level of professionalism that extends not only between the lines but how guys conduct themselves off the field. When situations arise, they’re addressed immediately.”
The Blue Jays had one gilt-edged chance to tie the game or maybe even take the lead in the top of the sixth. With the bases loaded and two out, Tampa manager Joe Maddon lifted starter Jeremy Hellickson for lefthander Jake McGee.
With Kelly Johnson scheduled to hit, Farrell could have countered with a right-handed bat - Rajai Davis or Yan Gomes was available - but chose to let Johnson hit for himself. He struck out to end the threat.
“Right-handers are hitting .100 off McGee and lefthanders are hitting around .260 so, in that situation I’m staying with (Johnson),” said Farrell.
In the bottom of the eighth, with a runner on second and a 2-0 count on Ben Zobrist, Farrell elected to intentionally walk Zobrist to get to Evan Longoria. Longoria responded with a two-run double off the wall in right to put the game away.
“We’re just looking to set up a groundball double play,” said the manager. “Unfortunately, the cutter stayed in the middle of the plate rather than getting to the outer edge and he drives the ball to right field.”