TORONTO — In the sixth inning Wednesday afternoon, as the Toronto Blue Jays’ hopes of salvaging this crucial series shifted from feasible to remote like a surfer edging too far past the lip of a rolling wave, Logan Forsythe hit a ground ball so evocative it hurt.
It came off an 0-2 change-up from Blue Jays reliever Danny Barnes, a good pitch that faded softly below the strike zone and left the bat as if someone had let it fall out of their pocket. It hit the ground and bounced a couple times before Forsythe even realized it was in play and he should make haste up the line. Ryan Goins, manning third base in place of the injured Josh Donaldson, was playing back, as he should have been, and had no chance of making a play. So, he let it roll.
And roll it did—slowly, painfully, torturously, and practically in slow motion until it reached third base and came to a gentle halt. A run came in to score, the sixth of the afternoon for the Tampa Bay Rays on a day when they’d only need two, and you could feel the air being let out of the building, and possibly Toronto’s season.
No other ground ball could so perfectly encapsulate the last two weeks of Blue Jays baseball. Little has gone right. When the team gets a good outing from its starting pitcher, the offence can’t score a run. When the bats come through, the starting pitcher isn’t himself. When there’s a late lead to protect, a consistently reliable reliever has a bad night. When the Blue Jays desperately need a win to claim a series and generate some sort of positive energy, they lay an egg. Hard-hit balls find gloves; walks awarded by dubious strike zones beget rallies; well-located pitches are hit over the fence. At the worst possible time, the Blue Jays cannot catch a break. The team that has occupied a playoff spot since early summer cannot get anything started. The ball rolls perfectly into the base.
Such is life for the Blue Jays, who dropped their second game in a row Wednesday, and their 10th in their last 14, 8-1 to the last-place Rays.
“It’s just hard to explain this. I guess when things are going bad, they can stay bad for a bit,” said Blue Jays starter Marco Estrada, who allowed four runs on four hits over 5.1 innings. “We can only go up from here. I know things are going to change. I know time is running out, but things are going to change. We’re too good for them not to.”
Wednesday’s loss was in spite of Estrada, who took the mound with terrific stuff—his 19 swinging strikes were a season-high—but received next to zero run support and was hard done by misfortune.
Estrada struck out the first five batters he faced—the first time a Blue Jay has ever done that—as he cruised through three perfect innings to begin the game. But the Rays got to him in the fourth when Forsythe led off with a single before Kevin Kiermaier ambushed a first-pitch change-up at his knees and scraped it just over the wall in right to put his team ahead by one. The ball came off Kiermaier’s bat at just 89 mph, making it the eighth-softest home run of the more than 5,000 hit in the majors this season.
“Man, it’s unreal the way this game works out sometimes,” Estrada said. “I thought it was a pop fly; it just kept going. I got Kiermaier out in front on a decent change-up. It was down. Maybe it caught a little bit too much of the plate, but it was down. It was a good pitch. Somehow he got it out.”
Estrada got the next batter but then walked Brad Miller on four pitches and watched him come around to score when Corey Dickerson golfed a two-out, two-strike curveball practically off his shoelaces for a ground ball single up the middle.
“I still don’t know how he hit it,” Estrada said. “The thing almost bounced.”
Estrada worked around a pair of walks in the fifth but was lifted in the sixth at 101 pitches after surrendering a one-out single to Nick Franklin. Left-hander Matt Dermody was called upon to pitch to the left-handed hitting Corey Dickerson next and, boy, that did not go well, as Dickerson hammered a slider that stayed over the heart of the plate 411-feet to dead centre field as the Rays went ahead, 5-1.
And things went preposterously awry from there. Dermody was lifted for Ryan Tepera, who allowed a soft single before striking out Alexei Ramirez for the inning’s second out. That’s when Bobby Wilson bounced a grounder up the middle that would have ended the inning had it not deflected off Tepera and into centre field.
That brought up Forsythe, who hit the most perfect ground ball you’ve ever seen. A ground ball you couldn’t replicate if you had 100 chances. And a ground ball that epitomizes the experience of watching or playing for Toronto over the past two long, agonizing weeks.
“These things happen. It’s part of baseball. It just seems a lot worse because we’re all struggling right now,” Estrada said. “It’s kind of been a snowball effect. We’ve just got to stop it. We’ve got to find a way to do it. Nothing’s really been working out lately. We need to start pitching better. Obviously, I need to start pitching better. And hopefully we start swinging the bats. There were a lot of hard-hit balls today but unfortunately they were right at guys. That’s how this game works sometimes. It’s hard to explain.”
And what of that offence? Well, there isn’t much to say about it after the first inning when—much to the delight of those who have cried for their favourite team to play a less exciting brand of baseball—the Blue Jays traded two outs for a run. Devon Travis led off with a well-struck double off Rays starter Alex Cobb, moved to third on a Michael Saunders sacrifice bunt and scored on an Edwin Encarnacion sacrifice fly. The Blue Jays played for one run and they got it.
But that was all they would get, as Cobb settled in and didn’t allow a hit until the seventh, when Dioner Navarro broke through with a single. Kevin Pillar walked later in the inning, but pinch-hitter Justin Smoak popped out to shallow left field to end the closest thing resembling a threat the Blue Jays could generate.
“Cobb, you know, he looked a lot like he did before his injury. He looks like he’s gaining strength. Really good curveball, he spots his fastball,” Blue Jays manager John Gibbons said of the Rays starter who missed all of last season after undergoing Tommy John surgery. “You know, before he was injured he was one of the best pitchers in baseball. He really was. He’s had a long layoff and it looks like he’s starting to put it together again.”
The Blue Jays, on the other hand, are not. For two weeks now, little has gone right. The series loss to Tampa was Toronto’s fourth straight and marked the eighth time in the last 14 games that the team has failed to score more than three runs. Just like that Forsythe ground ball in the sixth, placed so preposterously, painfully, perfectly up the line—the Blue Jays can’t catch a break.
“We’re not playing good enough baseball right now—at either end of it. The bats have gone cold and the pitching’s been kind of hit or miss,” Gibbons said. “But I’ve got to believe we’re at rock bottom. I don’t know how much lower it can go.”