TORONTO — The Toronto Blue Jays were one hit away from turning things around on Saturday.
But like so many other games in a season that has gone off the rails, Toronto’s clutch moment never came as the Tampa Bay Rays held on for a 4-3 victory.
“We had our opportunities, especially late there, but we couldn’t get that big one,” Blue Jays manager John Gibbons said.
Brett Lawrie walked with one out in the ninth and came around to score on an error by Rays closer Fernando Rodney, but the Blue Jays left runners at second and third when Adam Lind flied to centre.
“When you keep nibbling back and keep nibbling back and get within striking range and then you can’t strike, it’s frustrating,” said Lawrie, who made an error on a throw from that led to a run in the Rays’ three-run third inning.
The Blue Jays also had the bases loaded with none out in the eighth but couldn’t get anything as Rays reliever Joel Peralta got a foul out and two strikeouts.
Tampa Bay got two RBIs from rookie right-fielder Wil Myers, while starter Jeremy Hellickson (9-3) won his fifth consecutive decision.
The Rays (57-41) have won the first two of the three-game series with the Blue Jays (45-51) and have taken 16 of their last 18.
Hellickson allowed five hits, including a home run by Jose Bautista, three walks and two runs in five innings for the Rays before left-hander Alex Torres took over in the sixth.
Hellickson said he was not feeling well on Saturday.
“After BP (Friday) I started getting a little light-headed and I threw up a little bit,” he said. “I think it’s going around, there’s five or six of us who aren’t feeling too well.”
Hellickson had a no decision in his previous start on July 10 but is 7-1 over his past nine outings.
Blue Jays left-hander Mark Buehrle (5-7) allowed 10 hits and four runs (three earned) in seven innings to take his second consecutive loss.
“Maybe we’re overrated, maybe we’re not as good as we thought we were,” Buehrle said of a Blue Jays team that was expected to contend for the World Series but instead sits last in the American League East. “When we had an 11-game winning streak we had everything going for us. Guys were making play. We were hitting balls just out of the reach of guys and we were making the right pitches at the right time and now it seems like nothing is going our way.”
The Rays opened the scoring in the first when Desmond Jennings led off with a walk. Ben Zobrist then bunted for a single, Jennings took third on a fly out and scored on Myers’ sacrifice fly.
“It was a battle, probably one of the longest seven inning games time-wise,” Buehrle said. “A lot of base runners, falling behind in the counts. That first inning, it was like I forgot how to pitch. I couldn’t throw a strike. Then I got some stuff together then they found some holes and got some guys on base.”
Tampa Bay added three runs in the third to take a 4-0 lead. Sam Fuld led off with a single, Jennings bunted for a single and Zobrist walked to load the bases. Evan Longoria forced Zobrist at second to score one run before Myers singled in another. Longoria scored when Ryan Roberts forced Myers at second and reached first base on a throwing error by Lawrie.
Buehrle was upset with himself on the bunt by Jennings.
“It seems like I’ve been guessing wrong a lot of times this year,” he said. “When the guy squared around to bunt I just automatically go right to third base and he bunts it down the first-base line and it’s a single instead of waiting a couple of seconds to see where he’s going to bunt it. I’ve got to do a better job of fielding balls up the middle.
“To me, this is one of the worst years I’ve had as far as fielding my position, not reading the ball right, some balls getting up the middle and when I do get the ball not making the right throw. A lot of it comes back on me.”
Bautista’s 22nd homer of the season with two out in the bottom of the third cut the lead to 4-1.
The Blue Jays scored in the fifth on a groundout by Edwin Encarnacion that scored Jose Reyes from third.
Toronto had a golden opportunity to tie or take the lead in the eighth but couldn’t capitalize with the bases loaded and none out.
Torres walked Bautista and Encarnacion to open the inning before being replaced by Peralta, who walked Lind to load the bases.
But as has been the case so many times this season, Toronto couldn’t come up with a key hit. Colby Rasmus fouled out, Maicer Izturis was called out on strikes and J.P. Arencibia struck out swinging on a 3-2 pitch to end the threat.
“It was Houdini-esque,” Rays manager Joe Maddon said of Peralta. “Just a masterful job on his part of managing the moment.”
Notes: Attendance at Rogers Centre was 42,639. … Former Blue Jays first baseman Carlos Delgado will be added to the club’s Level of Excellence in a ceremony before Sunday’s game. … Both teams were two games above .500 on June 23. Toronto was 38-36, while Tampa Bay stood at 39-37. .. The Rays ended the Blue Jays 11-game winning streak on June 24. … Rays shortstop Yunel Escobar (strained hamstring) missed his second consecutive game. …Rays designated hitter Luke Scott singled in the eighth for a career-best 12-game hitting streak. … RHP R.A. Dickey (8-10, 4.69 earned-run average) will start Sunday’s series finale for Toronto against RHP Chris Archer (4-3, 2.96 ERA). … The Blue Jays open an interleague series against the Los Angeles Dodgers on Monday.