Blue Jays and their fans being tested like never before

Zach Britton managed to fend off the Jays’ late game comeback to make it three wins in a row for Baltimore.

TORONTO – Never before over 25 years in baseball has Mark Shapiro experienced an opening quite like the miserable entry into 2017 his Toronto Blue Jays are trudging through right now. A slump up and down a batting order capable of doing major damage. Mostly strong pitching, too often going to waste. A dose of poor fortune. And now the first disabled list stint of Josh Donaldson’s career compounding the woe.

How does the president and CEO handle the muck?

"When it comes to evaluation, you fight not to evaluate because everything gets accentuated at the start of a season, as well as emotions and desires, some of the things that make our players special, or how much they care and how competitive they are," Shapiro said before a 6-4 loss to the Baltimore Orioles on Friday night pushed the worst opening in franchise history to 1-9.

"When it goes collectively as badly as it does right now with our offence, a lot of what we’re dealing with is we need to get to a point where guys stop trying to do too much and stop trying to take responsibility for it individually. It’s going to have to be a collective approach where as a team we start having better at-bats, getting on-base and finding ways to score."

Well, the Blue Jays did that, a little bit, but even a date with Wade Miley was no magic bullet.

They put up a two-spot in the second inning on a Justin Smoak RBI single and Darwin Barney grounder booted by Manny Machado, their first crooked number on the scoreboard since the first inning Sunday in Tampa providing their first lead in 35 innings.

The Blue Jays even added on in the fourth when Smoak hit a solo shot to left field for the team’s first homer in 38 innings, and just its fifth longball of the year. Up 3-1 with Aaron Sanchez on the mound, their fate seemed set to turn.

Instead, Sanchez proceeded to give up three homers over the next inning and a third, two of them on curveballs to Jonathan Schoop and J.J. Hardy in the fifth that made you wonder if his blister troubles had flared up again. Sanchez largely stayed away from the hook after that – Chris Davis went yard on a heater but his final pitch was a curveball that Schoop ripped for a single with one out in the sixth.

"I just wasn’t executing the pitch, really," said Sanchez. "Toward the latter part of the game there were balls that kind of crept toward the middle, curveballs that didn’t really have that much depth on them that got hit hard. Just one of those nights."

The Orioles padded their lead in the ninth when Seth Smith’s solo shot off Jason Grilli made it a 6-3 game, plenty for closer Zach Britton, who surrendered an RBI single to Devon Travis that ended an 0-for-29 slide before converting his 54th consecutive save with a strikeout of Steve Pearce.

The Blue Jays have been on the verge of getting Britton four times this season, and are a collective 9-for-22 against him with three walks, but have been missing the key blow.

"You know from the get-go it’s going to be a tough at-bat and all you’re trying to do is get on base for the next guy," said Smoak, whose 101.8 mph laser off Britton in the ninth was hauled in by Smith in right field. "Guys are having really good at-bats off him, they know what to expect, we’ve seen him a lot, it’s a matter of not letting him in the game."

Some perspective on the doom and gloom came in the eighth when Mark Trumbo fouled back a 95.4 mph fastball from Ryan Tepera that struck home-plate umpire Dale Scott’s mask. He was taken to hospital and diagnosed with a concussion that will keep him out for the weekend, at least.

Sanchez’s rough outing – five runs on seven hits and a walk with three strikeouts in 5.1 innings – was a rare aberration for a rotation that’s deserved better over the past couple of weeks. The way they’ve performed has been something to buoy the team through the tidal wave of adversity.

"Not everything is wrong," said Shapiro. "We’re pitching well, dominant at times, there are a lot of good things going on both in the rotation and in our bullpen and we’re playing good defence. We’re not looking at overhauling the entire team – it’s getting the offence going. … If we’re patient, and we really don’t have any choice but right now, I feel like we’ll be rewarded."

Losing Donaldson for an indefinite period only complicates thing, as he’s been the one consistent threat in their lineup. Barney, Ryan Goins and the versatile Chris Coghlan, whose contract was purchased from triple-A Buffalo, will job share in his absence.

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As for further reinforcements, none are really on the horizon.

"It’s not a time you get external help," said Shapiro. "Less than 10 games in, this is not the time to start looking at external help. There may be a time and a place when you start to think about that, but you’re not going to replace five hitters.

We need to remember why we believe in these guys, remember their track records, recognize that they are extremely competitive and that they are high-character guys. They care, they’re working hard and continue to believe that it will turn, as much as it doesn’t feel like that at any given moment, that’s the cruelty of baseball. It’s not a game for weak players or weak people. It tests your toughness all the time."

A test unlike any other the Blue Jays and their fans have ever faced.

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