BALTIMORE – Muddling into the fourth week of the new season, the Toronto Blue Jays are still trying to become the team they believe they can be, showing periodic flashes of their potential while still waiting for the whole to come together consistently.
On some days they pitch but don’t hit. On others they hit by they don’t pitch. Of late they’ve started to catch the ball on a more regular basis, but that’s no money in the bank.
In short, on any given day you can’t be sure what you’re going to get.
On a bitingly cold Monday night at Camden Yards, a 2-1 setback to the Baltimore Orioles provided a microcosm of how things have gone of late. The Blue Jays pitched well, scrounged around for offence, and paid dearly for one crucial defensive miscue when Munenori Kawasaki’s throwing error extended the ninth inning, and set the stage for Nick Markakis’s walk-off single on an 0-2 fastball.
Just like that, the 8-12 Blue Jays fell to 2-4 in one-run games.
"Once again it's just another tough way to lose the game," said reliever Aaron Loup, hung with a tough-luck loss. "I was in there battling, made some good pitches, had a few tough breaks and I thought I had (Markakis) right where I wanted, made my pitch, and all I can do is tip my hat because he did a nice piece of hitting."
The Blue Jays, too, have an offence that can make opponents tip their cap, but they haven't made that happen very often this season. Despite only having four hits, they also walked five times and created some innings, but couldn't finish the job.
The seventh, when they tied the game 1-1 against a strong Chris Tillman, underlined that as Edwin Encarnacion singled on a 1-2 pitch, J.P. Arencibia singled on a 2-2 offering and Colby Rasmus added a base hit on a full count to knot things up.
Brett Lawrie then walked to load the bases but the breathe-easy hit that's been so hard to come by eluded them again, as Emilio Bonifacio struck out swinging. It was their last chance to deliver a big blow.
"We've just got to keep the energy up," said starter J.A. Happ, bled for one run over six solid innings. "It's been good, it's just been a tough go a little bit. But keep the energy up, keep the focus there. Sooner or later we'll start getting those balls to fall in. That'll be us doing that, and getting that big run and stuff like that. We've got to have confidence in that and trust that that's going to happen."
The offence can certainly help itself on that path with some collective and extended improvement in its pitch selection at the plate, a big reason why the Blue Jays started play Monday 26th in the majors with an abysmal .294 on-base percentage.
While they ranked slightly above the league average of 3.89 pitches seen per plate appearance at 3.92, they're also prone to making quick outs, swinging at the first pitch 26 per cent of the time (league average is 24 per cent) and batting just .256 (20-for-78) with three doubles and two homers when putting the ball in play.
At 0-1, they're batting just .214 (9-for-42) with two doubles and a homer, meaning 19 per cent of their at-bats have ended within the first two pitches and produced very little reward for the aggressiveness.
"We've been chasing too many balls out of the zone, you can take that too far," manager John Gibbons said before the game. "Like we've told them, get a pitch you want to hit and be aggressive. We're not telling them to go up and take pitches, because I don't think that's the right way to approach it. But early in the count when you have some strikes to work with, make sure it's what you want to hit.
"Some of it is pressing, guys trying to be the guy that does it. Everybody feels what's going on as far as some of our offensive struggles, in a lot of offensive categories we're down right now, but we've got a good offence, that's going to change."
In waiting for that change, other troubles are piling up.
Happ's performance helped turn another area to keep an eye on for the Blue Jays, whose bullpen started the day second in the majors with 69.2 innings pitched, behind only Houston's 75.
A key element of their construction was a rotation that would provide enough innings to keep the bullpen fresh enough to take the mound in optimal shape, yet that hasn't been the case.
And with the Blue Jays having completed game No. 14 of 20 in a row without a day off, the workload threatens to wear down the relievers before May even arrives, and getting caught up only gets harder as time goes along.
Steve Delabar, making his fifth appearance of an inning-plus in 10 outings, took care of things in the seventh and eighth before Loup came on in the ninth and promptly hit leadoff man Chris Davis.
After a J.J. Hardy sacrifice bunt, Steve Pearce popped out to second, Nolan Reimold was intentionally walked and Alexi Casilla's weak chopper to short seemed to be the end of the inning. But Kawasaki never seemed to get set right, bounced a throw that Encarnacion couldn't scoop, and four pitches later Markakis slashed a low and away fastball to left to win the game.
"This is all my mistake," Kawasaki said in Japanese comments interpreted by Kyodo News reporter Makoto Marimoto, adding that he hurried the throw and should have been more cautious.
Gibbons was quick to defend his shortstop, cutting off a question about the throw by saying, "Hey, let me tell you something, he's been playing his ass off, to hang that on him is wrong. You win as a team and you lose as a team. I'm not about to do that."
Either way, it was death by paper cuts, just like in the sixth when Happ surrendered his only run. Manny Machado singled just out of the reach of a diving Rasmus, Adam Jones singled off a leaping Brett Lawrie's glove, a wild pitch off Arencibia's glove on a cross-up with Happ advanced them, and Machado came home on Chris Davis' deep fly to right.
"They've got a good ball club over there and they showed it last year in those tight ballgames, they win those one-run, two-run games and they're confident," Gibbons said. "Markakis with two outs came through when they needed it, down two strikes, that's basically what it was."
And basically what it wasn't for a Blue Jays team still trying to find its stride for a prolonged period.