ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – Musing about his team’s unsteady lot of hard losses, costly errors and strangely inconsistent pitching, Tampa Bay Rays manager Joe Maddon spoke with certainty Monday afternoon of how his team’s fortunes were due to change, of how its struggles were inevitable part of every season.
Then he pointed to the Toronto Blue Jays, whose plight has been similar to but different than that of his own club, as an example of why reading too much into a month-plus of baseball is a bad idea.
“The Jays are still looking for their identity, they’re going to be fine,” he said confidently. “And they’re still real scary to me, it’s just a matter of time before they come together and play to their level of capability. You’ve really got to stay ahead of them because they’re going to get hot.”
Hours later, Maddon’s words proved prophetic, as the Blue Jays rallied all the way back from a 7-0, third-inning deficit — the biggest lead ever blown by the Rays at home — in a gripping 8-7 victory that was capped by J.P. Arencibia’s dramatic two-run blast in the ninth inning off Fernando Rodney.
That they overcame a handful of misplays, had some things break their way and had it all happen at the house of horrors Tropicana Field has been for the franchise in recent years only underlined how against the grain this was for the Blue Jays, who won consecutive games for just the second time this season.
Now 12-21, there is no proclaiming the Blue Jays fixed after a pair of heartening victories. But perhaps, finally, the worst is behind them, and they're off to find their true level.
"A lot of times this game evens itself out," said Arencibia. "If guys keep on with positive attitudes and keep on coming every day ready to work and continue to do what we do, it's going to turn. There are too many good players in this clubhouse for it not to."
The struggling Mark Buehrle, pitching to backup catcher Henry Blanco for the first time in search of a spark, was battered for a seven-spot in a third inning that included Colby Rasmus appearing to lose a Kelly Johnson drive to centre ball in the Tropicana Field roof for an RBI single, an Evan Longoria grand slam and a Luke Scott two-run shot.
But rather than implode, the Blue Jays clawed back for three in the fourth against a shaky Jeremy Hellickson on Rasmus's two-run shot and a Melky Cabrera RBI single, two more in the sixth on a pinch-hit two-run homer by Mark DeRosa off reliever Jake McGee, and another in the eighth on Jose Bautista's sacrifice fly to make it 7-6.
Rodney escaped further damage that frame, and was on the verge of escaping a runner on third no-out jam in ninth after striking out Rasmus and getting Maicer Izturis on a grounder before Arencibia belted his ninth of the year, fist-pumping as the ball cleared while the Blue Jays dugout exploded in joy.
Casey Janssen locked things down in the ninth for his eighth save and the Blue Jays avoided a night full of should have, would have and could haves after a seventh-inning rally, when they had runners on second and third with none out, went for naught. Bautista tried to score after waiting for Adam Lind's hard smash to second to touch green, thrown out easily at home by Ryan Roberts, and then Rasmus struck out and Maicer Izturis flew out to end the threat.
"I don't want to say we're due, but in a lot of ways we were due. But you don't expect it to happen that way," said manager John Gibbons. "The big blow early was DeRosa's. Veteran guys, that's why they're around."
More typically this season, those types of hits haven't come at all for the Blue Jays, while the Rays have managed to at least stay reasonably afloat at 14-17 after adding this one to their regret list.
Built on pitching and defence, the Rays didn't do much of either Monday, with Hellickson grinding through five despite the healthy lead, a tired bullpen failing to hold things in place, defensive substitute Yunel Escobar failing to field two balls that fuelled rallies, and a Jose Molina throwing error helping along another.
Picked by many to either challenge the Blue Jays for AL East supremacy or claim it outright, the Rays, like their rivals, have been less than the sum of their parts.
"The Red Sox got off hot, it's going to come back a little there, the Yankees, same thing, whereas the Blue Jays have been cold, they're going to come back, we're going to make our move and Baltimore's done a nice job, period," said Maddon. "For us to be where we need to be, it's about pitching and defence first, we can't be there without that. We're not going to outscore people on any consistent basis."
The Blue Jays expected to pitch better than they have, Buehrle front and centre in that regard.
The veteran left-hander gave up a season-high in runs and has surrendered at least five runs in five of his seven outings.
"I don't know if the baseball gods have something on me, it seems like I can't catch breaks, make a good pitch they're hitting it, make a bad pitch they're crushing it, I don't know, I can't pinpoint one thing or the other of what it is," said Buehrle. "If it keeps on happening for a little bit longer, it's going to be more frustrating, because I feel like I'm not doing anything to help these guys win.
"They're out there battling and granted I didn't get the loss and we came back and battled, but to me I'm not doing my job of giving us a chance to win right there. I went out and went six innings but a seven-spot in one inning, that's kind of embarrassing."
Still, like his team's struggles, Buehrle's woes can't last forever, either. Same goes for the Rays, and Maddon was quick to point out his team's comeback from a nine game deficit in September 2011 to take the wild card away from the Red Sox when asked about gaps in the current standings.
Things change quickly, and he believes the best is head for both his Rays and the Blue Jays.
"I was horrible in the subject in high school but I'm a total believer in chemistry," said Maddon. "For that group that believes we have to win to create chemistry, I totally disagree with that. I believe you can create chemistry that leads to winning, I've done it, I've been there. Use another word, the ability to get together, the ability to get along, whatever you want to call it, once they feel that within their clubhouse, they're going to take off on the field. I don't know what it looks like in that clubhouse. I know what it looks like in ours, and we're still coming together, we have a lot of new guys. When we get together, we're going to take off, too."
The Rays crash-landed on this night, but maybe, just, maybe, the Blue Jays took flight.