ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – Adversity can strike at any point of the baseball season but when it happens right out of the gate, every fault, big or small, is magnified. The Toronto Blue Jays are experiencing that right now after a turbulent opening week matched the worst start in franchise history through six games at 1-5, and was capped by Josh Donaldson leaving Sunday’s 7-2 loss to the Tampa Bay Rays.
Donaldson homered in the first to get his team off on the right foot but while booting it to first on a grounder to deep third base in the sixth, he pulled up awkwardly. Once his momentum stopped, he bent over, grabbed at the right calf he strained early in spring training, walked very slowly back to the dugout and left the game.
Initial word is that he’s day-to-day with tightness, and it seems the Blue Jays got lucky there.
"I’m not worried about it," said Donaldson, describing the feeling as more of a cramp. "Honestly, I think it’s very realistic I’ll be ready for the home opener (on Tuesday)."
Either way, his cramp was quite the chaser to a week that included two walkoff losses, an eighth-inning blown save, a start by Francisco Liriano that only lasted a third of an inning, a trip to the disabled list for J.P. Howell and only five innings in which they’ve managed to put a crooked number up on the scoreboard.
Still, in four of their five losses they’ve been a swing or a pitch away from a better outcome, and without a body of work to juxtapose the rough week against, 1-5 really stands out.
"Without a doubt," said Donaldson. "Not so much in the locker-room as it is for being a fan of our team, because you want to see us get off to a good start. We want to get off to a good start. That’s not the case at the moment, but we feel very good about getting back home, playing in front of our fans. We’re looking forward to that and changing the momentum of where it’s at right now."
Given how things transpired, little wonder Troy Tulowitzki wasn’t taking any guff when Steven Souza Jr., slid late and nearly clipped the shortstop’s right toe before swiping through to his right foot on a 3-6 double play in the second. Tulowitzki let Souza know he didn’t like the slide, the outfielder kept chirping back and eventually the dugouts emptied for a little yelly-yelly before order was restored.
"I definitely respect the game and felt like it was a little late, figured I should say something. Not so much that time just for myself, but for other guys maybe in the future, you try to save injuries," said Tulowitzki. "All I’m trying to do is not get injured, I don’t think he would want to injure me but at the same time, when someone says something, maybe try to think about it instead of just showing a reaction. It is what it is, you move past it, no hard feelings, I just want the game to be played the right way."
The two also had a run-in last Sept. 12, when a series of misunderstandings led to an exchange of words between Souza, Roberto Osuna and Russell Martin. Eventually Tulowitzki charged in, pointed Souza to the dugout and angry shouting followed.
"He just maybe said some stuff below the belt that I’m not going to repeat," Souza said at the time. "We’ll leave it on the field."
This time, the 27-year-old denied any intent, explaining that the play was behind him as he was running from first to second on Logan Morrison’s grounder to first.
"I’m not going to play every game and wonder if Tulo is going to get upset about it," he said. "I’m playing hard and if he thinks that I’m trying to be malicious then he clearly doesn’t know who I am. It’s unfortunate that it turned into something like that, because it was just baseball. Hopefully we can just squash it and move on because I’m really tired of having a feud with that."
When Souza came up for his next at-bat in the third, he tried to explain what happened to Russell Martin, who was among the Blue Jays who didn’t like the slide. As they chatted, home-plate umpire Mike Muchlinski walked toward the Rays dugout where Souza said manager Kevin Cash was shouting, "shut up and get in the box."
Souza did and ended up with the last laugh against Marco Estrada, as after being in front of a change-up earlier in the at-bat, he got his timing right on a 1-2 change and put it over the wall for a three-run homer that put the Rays up 4-2.
Corey Dickerson hit a wall-scraper over the fence in the left-field corner earlier in the inning and Jesus Sucre added another solo shot in the fourth, both also on change-ups, Estrada’s bread and butter that wasn’t right.
"They were all up," said Estrada. "I don’t really care if they’re looking for it, if I throw a good one I usually can get outs with it. Missing up, over the plate and I even got away with some that I left up. I’ve got to work on it, get it back down, once I get going again, things will be OK."
Estrada grinded through five innings, allowing five runs on seven hits and two walks with five strikeouts, but with the Blue Jays still unable to open up innings, it was too big a hole to climb out of.
Donaldson has been one of the Blue Jays’ primary bright spots this week, and his second homer of the season, an opposite-field shot in the first off Jake Odorizzi, gave the Blue Jays the start they needed after games of 3:53 and 3:55 the previous two nights ended in losses.
Jose Bautista followed with a walk, advanced to third on a Kendrys Morales double and scored on Tulowitzki’s groundout for a 2-0 edge. But the offence dried up from there – they didn’t manage another hit until Bautista’s two-out double in the ninth – and finding a way to get things going at the plate, and quickly, is the priority.
"We need to get home," said manager John Gibbons. "It seems like we’ve been gone forever. Maybe that’s the energy and the spark we need."
The Blue Jays get a day away from their current struggles Monday before their home opener Tuesday against the Milwaukee Brewers, a team that provides an opportunity for them to get themselves right for the long haul that lies ahead.