Demoralizing losses keep piling up for Blue Jays

Toronto Blue Jays starter Marco Estrada and Boston Red Sox ace Chris Sale had a memorable pitching duel that saw the Jays fall in extra inning. Watch the highlights with Blue Jays in 60 presented by Sonnet.

TORONTO – In isolation, the Toronto Blue Jays’ latest loss seems innocuous enough. They’re not the first team to lose to Red Sox starter Chris Sale on a day he’s dealing.

And yet if you place Thursday’s 4-1 loss in context, it starts to look demoralizing. The Blue Jays missed a chance to win their first series of the season and continued struggling at the plate, striking out 18 times. They leave for a two-city road trip with baseball’s worst record: 3-12.

“It’d be understandable if we were on a different team with different names on that team,” starter Marco Estrada said. “But you look at the names we have here and you start thinking ‘how is this happening with a lineup like that and a staff like what we have and a good bullpen.’ It’s weird. It’s hard to explain right now. We really don’t know what’s going on.”

“Losing only makes you appreciate winning,” Jason Grilli added. “There’s not much else to say. There’s no words right now.”

Granted, Sale was nearly unhittable, throwing as hard as 98 m.p.h. and as soft as 74 m.p.h. on a day he fanned 13. All the Blue Jays could manage against the left-hander was four hits and one walk.

So when Craig Kimbrel replaced Sale after eight innings, Blue Jays hitters might have been a little more eager than usual to see Boston’s closer. Either way, Kendrys Morales welcomed Kimbrel to the ballgame by hitting a game-tying home run to deep centre field. For the first time since last May, Kimbrel had blown a save.

And yet the Red Sox rallied against Jason Grilli the following inning, loading the bases for Mookie Betts, who responded with a bases-clearing double.

As impressively as Sale pitched, his counterpart was just as effective. Estrada quietly delivered an impressive performance against the offence that led baseball in runs scored last year. He allowed just three singles and two walks over six scoreless innings, striking out seven batters while lowering his ERA to 2.63.

Initially, the Blue Jays bullpen followed up with some stellar work of their own. Joe Biagini, pitching for the second day in a row and the ninth time this month, pitched a scoreless seventh before Joe Smith struck out two on his way to a clean eighth. It wasn’t until Mitch Moreland and Xander Bogaerts picked up consecutive hits against Roberto Osuna that the Red Sox scored their first run.

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Meanwhile, Toronto’s offensive struggles continued. Only the Royals have scored fewer runs than the Blue Jays, who are now averaging just three runs per game.

Jose Bautista‘s first four trips to the plate ended with strikeouts, and the right-fielder now has 22 whiffs in 55 at-bats on the season. It’s not the first time that he has started a campaign by striking out a lot—he had 18 Ks after 58 at-bats in 2015 on his way to a monster year. But while Bautista had five home runs during that 2015 slump, the Blue Jays are still awaiting his first 2017 homer.

“Any time that you’re accustomed to being a contributor and you’re not, it weighs on you a little bit,” Bautista said. “But I’ve got to get past that and figure out a way to get back on track.”

In recent days he’s been chasing pitches he normally doesn’t chase. Compounding matters, he’s been caught guessing a couple times, leaving him off-balance.

“I’m not proud of the last two days and the way I’ve looked, because my approach hasn’t been consistent,” he said. “I can handle the lack of success base hit-wise if I execute my game plan, and the last two days have been pretty bad.”

If you’re looking for positives, Kevin Pillar continues to hit well from the leadoff spot, with a bloop single and a first-inning gapper that could easily have landed for extra bases had Andrew Benintendi not run it down. The centre-fielder has a batting average of .339 and an on-base percentage of .361 after spending the last six games atop the Blue Jays’ order.

With so few players contributing at the plate, the Blue Jays were unable to end their first homestand with a win. They returned home hopeful that the Toronto crowd would help reverse their slow start. Instead, they won just two of nine games.

“We have been playing better as of late, and I think things are going to turn around,” Estrada said. “I almost feel like the first few were a fluke.”

Fluke or not, losses like this one have put the Blue Jays in a truly uncomfortable spot just 15 games into the season.