Blue Jays lineup shuffle not enough in loss to Cubs

Toronto Blue Jays' Josh Donaldson, left, scores as Chicago Cubs' Alex Avila, right, is unable to tag him during the tenth inning of a baseball game, Sunday, Aug. 20, 2017, in Chicago. (Kamil Krzaczynski/AP)

CHICAGO – National League rules alone didn’t lead John Gibbons to have a Joe Maddon-esque fit of pique in designing his lineup Sunday. Really, the Toronto Blue Jays were on the pursuit of offence in starting Josh Donaldson at shortstop for the first time in his career with Jose Bautista at third base, trying to wring more production from a batting order with too many soft spots, before another game slipped away.

It worked well enough, as batting order inserts Nori Aoki and Ezequiel Carrera combined to plate a run in the fifth, before triggering a rally that culminated in Kevin Pillar’s go-ahead RBI single in the top of the 10th inning. But in an inning like few others you’ll see, the Chicago Cubs put two men on via strikeout and stole a 6-5 victory Sunday afternoon to complete a three-game sweep.

All the momentum the Blue Jays built and ground they grained in the standings during a 7-3 homestand was lost in a weekend. They’re now 59-65 ahead of a three-game set versus the Tampa Bay Rays at Tropicana Field starting Tuesday, five games back of Minnesota and the Los Angeles Angels for the second wild-card spot.

“You look at the position we’re in, every win is vital to us,” said Gibbons. “We were in a position to win – those are the games you’ve got to close out. We can’t afford those, we’ve run into a few of those lately. But you know what? This group will take (Monday) off, they’ll show up Tuesday, and we’ll see what the hell happens.”

A day off will certainly provide opportunity to assess what just happened after a 10th that would have left many observers asking for answers.

The Blue Jays played the Cubs tough in the first two games, unsuccessfully trudging uphill both times, but after falling behind 3-0 in the third inning Sunday – the only runs Marco Estrada would allow in a solid outing – they tied the game with single runs in the fourth, fifth and sixth.

Pillar made perhaps his most insane catch yet in the seventh as he chased down Kris Bryant’s smash, leaped into the ivy and the brick behind it and came up with the ball. Completing his tour de force, he poked an RBI single to right off Koji Uehara before Aoki’s bases-loaded walk off Justin Wilson gave Toronto a 5-3 lead in the 10th.

“Same as always,” Pillar said of his mindset running into the brick. “My job is to go out there and make plays for our pitchers and that’s what I was able to do.”

With Roberto Osuna locked and loaded for the bottom half, even after he was sent to the hotel Friday because of fever, the Blue Jays had reason to feel good. He struck out Kyle Schwarber to open the 10th but the ball ended up at the backstop as Raffy Lopez, catching the all-star closer for the third time, couldn’t corral the pitch. Ben Zobrist followed with a single and Schwarber scored on another wild pitch. After Anthony Rizzo grounded to second to advance Zobrist to third, Gibbons made a rare visit to the mound because, “I had some things for him.”

Javier Baez then struck out on a pitch that squirted away from Lopez, who spent too long looking Zobrist back to third before throwing to first late, losing the out on the hustling shortstop.

“I was just trying to get the ball, check him and go,” Lopez explained. “I just made a bad throw and my feet weren’t in the proper position. My body was facing their dugout and I didn’t get my body in the proper position to recover and throw to first.”

Baez proceeded to steal second before Jason Heyward was hit by a pitch to load the bases. Alex Avila followed with a two-run single to seal the win.

“You’re just in awe – you can’t believe those things are happening. The game was over, you know?” Estrada said of watching the 10th unfold. “We played our butts off and we had it. Unfortunately it all fell apart. There’s nothing you can do about it now – move on, regroup.”

Moving over Donaldson and Bautista underlined the urgency the Blue Jays felt after dropping the first two games of the series. Losing the DH in a National League park kept Kendrys Morales from the lineup, but after he struck out pinch-hitting in the seventh, he’s mired in a 3-for-33 rut since a three-hit game Aug. 4.

With both Darwin Barney and Rob Refsnyder slumping as well, the Blue Jays felt they could get more from Aoki and Carrera.

“Not a lot of plays (defensively) but I thought they looked pretty good out there, kind of natural,” Gibbons said of Donaldson and Bautista. “We’ll see. You may see them out there together again.”

The risk in the unorthodox alignment showed up in a messy third, when Estrada got himself into trouble with a Rene Rivera single off his glove that deflected to third, a Jon Jay hit-by-pitch and a Kyle Hendricks bunt that the right-hander fielded before yanking the throw to first.

Albert Almora followed with an 101-m.p.h. smash down the line just past Bautista, a drive that maybe Donaldson picks, to clear the bases and give the Cubs a 3-0 lead. That was all Estrada would surrender in his six innings of work, allowing five hits and three walks in a solid outing.

“That inning shouldn’t have happened,” said Estrada. “Not too many balls were hit hard. I made that one error. I threw it away and it cost me a run. But I didn’t let things get too out of hand.”

Persistently, the Blue Jays pecked away at the deficit, with Justin Smoak opening the fourth with a double and scoring on a Bautista single, Aoki opening the fifth with a double and scoring on Carrera’s double-play ball, and Miguel Montero tying things up with a solo shot in the sixth.

But much in the way things fell right for the Blue Jays in taking three of four from the Rays before stepping into the friendly confines, over the weekend every bounce went the Cubs’ way.

“They got the magic here,” said Gibbons, “there’s no doubt about that.”

The Blue Jays need some magic of their own, and fast.

“We need to go on a run. It’s getting close to the end and we have to make up some ground,” said Estrada. “It’s unfortunate this happened today. We really needed this. Every game was close. We were in each game and none of them went our way.

“It’s tough to take with that loss, the way things happened. It just sucks.”