TORONTO — The Blue Jays got a huge crowd going in what wound up being a very nervous ninth for the Tampa Bay Rays, but they ultimately fell a run short and fell six games under .500 for the first time since June 14th, after the third of what would be 11 straight wins.
Here are three things that stood out to me about the loss to the Rays:
The Blue Jays were 0-for-9 with runners in scoring position in Saturday’s loss, with a huge opportunity wasted in the bottom of the eighth when they had the bases loaded with nobody out and couldn’t score. Colby Rasmus, who has had a terrible series so far (1-for-8, 12 runners left on), popped up, Maicer Izturis struck out looking and J.P. Arencibia went down swinging after fouling off a 3-2 pitch.
The failures to cash in just fed the perception that the Blue Jays have not hit well with runners in scoring position this season, which couldn't be farther from the truth - they came into the game sixth in the major leagues in OPS with runners in scoring position. Edwin Encarnacion, Rasmus, Adam Lind and Jose Bautista are all hitting over .300 in that situation.
The big problem has come up when the opportunity has been the greatest: the Blue Jays have been just awful with the bases loaded.
With the 0-for-3 in the eighth inning from Rasmus, Izturis and Arencibia, the Jays fell to 10-for-47 on the season with the sacks juiced - a .213/.245/.362 line. That batting average is the worst in the American League, better than only the Philadelphia Phillies in all of baseball, and the .607 OPS with the bases loaded ranks the Blue Jays 25th in the majors, with the Twins the only American League team worse than they are.
Brett Lawrie hadn't really been tested as a second baseman in the three games he'd played at the position prior to Saturday. He'd had to deal with nothing more than relatively routine grounders and hadn't been required to try to be the pivot man on a double play - but all that changed in the latest loss to the Rays.
In the third inning, Lawrie was a magnet for the baseball.
Sam Fuld led off with a grounder up the middle - Lawrie went hard to his right and made a full-out dive only to have the ball hop over his glove and into centrefield for a single. Lawrie was tested again when the next batter, Desmond Jennings, bunted for a base hit up the first-base line, and Lawrie was up to the task - breaking immediately to cover first as Adam Lind went in to field the bunt. He didn't make it in time, but the only second baseman who would have was Usain Bolt.
Two batters later, Lawrie was the pivot man on a double play attempt, taking Jose Reyes' relay throw on Evan Longoria's grounder to short. The ball wasn't hit hard enough for the twin killing, though, and Lawrie wisely held onto it rather than risk a low-percentage throw.
After Wil Myers singled in a run, Lawrie got his first chance to actually try to turn a double play, and it didn't go well. Ryan Roberts grounded to third and Maicer Izturis fed Lawrie a great throw. With time, Lawrie threw the relay away up the first base line, allowing the Rays' fourth run to score.
Later on, Lawrie made a spectacular diving grab of Jose Molina's hard grounder up the middle and made a terrific stretch covering first on a Molina bunt to complete a 3-6-4 double play in the eighth.
It's four games in, and this was the first game we've really seen what kind of an effect Lawrie's defense can have up the middle - and while the results were mixed, it's been a long time since he's played the position regularly.
The main reason, I believe, the Blue Jays are trying Lawrie at second is that they believe his defense will have more of an impact at second base than it will at third, and that's the right idea. Middle infielders get far more touches over the course of a season than corner guys. The thing is, we know he's spectacular defensively at third and don't know whether or not he can be that at second. If he can, it's a worthwhile pursuit to have him there.
The Blue Jays came out of the all-star break running out of time and needing to go on a heck of a run, and quickly, in order to get themselves back in the thick of things. They're starting the "second half" with a 10-game homestand, which is lovely, but they're also starting against the two hottest teams in the big leagues, which is less so.
The Tampa Bay Rays came to town having won 17 of their last 21, with the best record in the majors since May 8 at 41-23. They've won the first two games of the series to up those marks to 19-4 and 43-23.
Next up are the Los Angeles Dodgers, who just happen to be the hottest team in the National League, going into their game Saturday night having won 18 of their last 23.
When the Blue Jays were on their 11-game win streak, it didn't matter who they were up against because they were the team on fire. Now it's up to them to cool off some extremely hot teams in order to avoid sliding back into irrelevance, at least for the time being.
The thing is, if you have the post-season on your mind, if you have a team that's good enough to compete for a championship, you're going to wind up beating some very good teams on some pretty hot streaks more than every once in a while.