Blown games eating away at Blue Jays bit by bit

Chris Carter, Marwin Gonzalez and Evan Gattis homered and the Houston Astros beat the Toronto Blue Jays 6-5 Saturday night for their fourth straight win.

HOUSTON – The manner in which the Toronto Blue Jays have blown games of late can take a toll much deeper than the obvious. Continually watching starters bury the team in a deep deficit or the bullpen surrender hard-fought leads can be corrosive to a club’s foundations.

That these issues have arisen with such regularity at a point when things need to start stabilizing may be the greatest worry for the Blue Jays, who got five decent innings from Marco Estrada that promptly went to waste in a disastrous sixth that led to a 6-5 loss Saturday to the Houston Astros.

The defeat was their fourth in a row, fifth in six outings, each one feeling like a fresh kick in the delicates. You couldn’t really blame the offence for wondering when the pitching staff will start doing its share.

“I can only control what I do, the guys beside me can only control what they do, it’s really just about going out there and getting the job done,” said third baseman Josh Donaldson, who doubled and scored in the first and walked twice. “This isn’t the try league, this is the get it done league. Eventually they’re going to find people who are going to get it done.”

More frustrating is that if it’s not the starter, the way it was Friday when R.A. Dickey was pounded for seven runs in five innings, it’s the bullpen, the way it was in Thursday’s 6-4 loss, and then again Saturday.

The Astros go for a sweep of the four-game series Sunday and they’ve been full value for each win.

“It’s difficult right now just for the sheer fact that we’re really not beating ourselves, per se, we’re not making errors, we’re not making a whole lot of miscues, we’re just going out there and getting beat,” said Donaldson. “I think at the end of the day, that’s what makes it a little bit more frustrating.”

Estrada, making his third start since moving from the bullpen to the rotation, allowed a two-run Evan Gattis homer in the third but nothing else in his five frames, striking out eight. He broke out the cutter he’s been working on, got a couple of swings and misses with it, and plans to use it more down the road.

But he also needed 98 pitches to get that far, and given that he hasn’t hit 100 pitches yet this season, the safe play was taking the outing and asking the bullpen to nurse the lead home.

“He did a great job, he finished up strong there, I didn’t think there was a whole lot left with where he was in the game,” manager John Gibbons said of Estrada. “It was a battle for him, it wasn’t an easy outing.”

It was much tougher for the bullpen, which let the lead die in a span of three batters in the sixth.

With Aaron Loup unavailable after his back locked up, Jeff Francis came on to face a pair of lefties who both reached, Preston Tucker on a single and Colby Rasmus on an 0-2 ground-rule double. Then Liam Hendriks took over, and strikeout machine Chris Carter smacked a 1-2 pitch over the wall in right-centre to put the Astros up.

After Hank Conger followed with a fly ball that Kevin Pillar tracked down at the base of Tal’s Hill in centre field – a home run at most other ballparks – Marwin Gonzalez homered to right-centre field to extend the advantage.

“It’s very tough” to lose in such fashion, said Gibbons, “but that’s the way the business is, it’s not a profession for the weak of mind.”

Jose Bautista came up as the potential tying run in the top of the seventh but struck out against Josh Fields, and the Blue Jays got only a too-little, too-late two-run homer from pinch-hitter Edwin Encarnacion in the ninth off Luke Gregerson.

For good measure, second baseman Devon Travis left after striking out in the seventh with left shoulder irritation suffered while swinging. The pain is in the collarbone area where a one-hopper struck him in Cleveland, and any absence would be another blow an already paper-thin lineup can’t sustain.

The hope is both he and Loup are available Sunday.

Already Jose Reyes, who hit again Saturday and will be assessed for a possible rehab assignment Monday, Michael Saunders and Dioner Navarro are on the disabled list, while Bautista is limited to DH duties because of his injured right shoulder.

Encarnacion didn’t start Saturday in a matchup decision because Justin Smoak hits Scott Feldman well, and he’s somewhat banged up and is moving poorly on the field, a matter exacerbated by his inability to get some regular DH time.

Then there’s the pitching, and the Blue Jays can only look longingly at what Feldman did Saturday, when he surrendered three runs in the first inning on Russell Martin’s two-run triple (his first three-bagger since Sept. 9, 2007) and a Smoak RBI single, and then shut the door.

He retired 14 of 15 batters from the second to the seventh, leaving with one on, two out and a 6-3 lead. The right-hander struck out 10, giving his offence a chance to do its thing against a Blue Jays pitching staff that has an air of inevitability to it right now.

Estrada made gains, and if the cutter takes and his curveball can be as sharp as it was Saturday, then he’ll have the complements he needs for his outstanding changeup. At this point, too, he should have enough of a physical base to extend himself a bit more.

“I’ve got to go deeper into the game, that’s all I’m thinking about, is going six-plus, haven’t got there yet, but I’m building up to it still and actually I feel pretty good,” he said. “I felt like I could have gone another [inning], but I know I’m still building up. We jumped up pretty quick from 75 to 90-plus, so the next one, if things are going well, we’ll be able to throw over 100.”

Still, what the Blue Jays really need is one of their starters to regularly take control of games and shove it down the throat of the other team for seven or more innings. Right now, no one is doing that, and while Mark Buehrle starts Sunday and has been solid in his last two outings, he’s no lock to act as a stopper.

That the same thing is beginning to apply to the bullpen again after a good stretch only compounds the problem, and each setback risks further eating away at the Blue Jays, bit by little bit.

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