Blue Jays hit more bumps in finale of up-and-down opening series

Steve Souza's second home run of the game, a three-run drive in the eighth inning, lifted the Tampa Bay Rays over the Toronto Blue Jays 5-3.

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – A quick start to the season that quickly turned turbulent hit more bumps Wednesday when Josh Donaldson suffered a right calf strain and the Toronto Blue Jays bullpen coughed up another late lead in a 5-3 loss to the Tampa Bay Rays.

The reigning American League MVP, who first felt things tighten up after his three-run homer in the third, tweaked the area again hitting a weak chopper in the seventh. He walked to first base on a ball he might have beaten out, and then turned straight for the dugout.

Donaldson pretty much never comes out of games – he’s played 158 games in each of the past three seasons – but said, “I didn’t want to take that chance of something minor turning into something major.”

Also factoring into the decision were, “one, I didn’t feel I was able to play defence the way I wanted to, and two, if I had to try and run or something, it was pretty difficult,” he added. “We don’t think it’s too serious, and hopefully I’ll be back for our next game.”

The Blue Jays next play Friday in their home opener against the Boston Red Sox, and Donaldson is to be presented with his AL MVP award from 1987 winner George Bell.

A return home should flush some of the bad feelings from this one, as Steven Souza Jr.’s three-run shot in the bottom of the eighth off Arnold Leon erased a 3-2 lead and saddled the Blue Jays with a split of four games at Tropicana Field. The late twist only made things more tense for a team still working through the tumult of the previous night, when a replay ruling on a slide rule violation in the ninth inning negated a two-run rally and led to a 3-2 loss.

“Not a real good 24 hours, put it that way,” lamented manager John Gibbons.

That’s an understatement, given how things turned after the Blue Jays took the first two games.

“The fact of the matter is they were ahead for an inning and a half the entire time, so I felt like we played pretty good baseball,” said Donaldson. “We just have to do a little bit of a better job at the end of the game finishing up.”

J.A. Happ, making the first start of his second tour with the Blue Jays, had restored some order with six quality innings, while Donaldson’s blow off Matt Moore provided just enough offence. Through the first four games of the season, Blue Jays starters have allowed only nine earned runs over 26 innings, surrendering only four walks with 20 strikeouts against a much-improved Rays batting order.

That bodes well.

“I wasn’t super-sharp today, that’s for sure,” said Happ. “I was able to minimize the damage when they bunched some base hits together in that fourth, that was big getting out of there with just one run scoring, and then just trying to focus.”

But a bullpen that looked good in preserving Monday’s 5-3 win with four clean innings needs to get untracked.

Brett Cecil’s streak of 38 straight games without an earned run came to an end on Logan Forsythe’s two-run homer in the eighth Tuesday. Then Wednesday, Gavin Floyd, after a strong seventh, allowed a leadoff single to Evan Longoria and a one-out, hit-and-run single by Desmond Jennings in the eighth before Leon went 3-1 on Souza, who clobbered one toward Ducky’s deck in left-centre field.

“He did a good job, shoot,” Floyd said of Jennings, whose single really changed the inning. “(The pitch) wasn’t on the plate, it was off if anything. It stinks but you learn in this game to try your best to have a short memory, move on and be ready for the next game.”

Leon induced groundballs all spring and Gibbons went to him in search of an inning-ending double play as Cecil and Jesse Chavez weren’t available after pitching in back-to-back games. Set-up man Drew Storen was also off limits as he pitched just once but warmed in both of the other games.

“You’ve got to be conscious of that, as tempting as it is,” said Gibbons. “All four games mattered, they were tight games. But if you kill them now, you’ve got nothing. And you’ve got to find out about some other guys, too. (Storen) was down, Cecil and Chavez, so, hey, it was an opportunity. They got the big hit and run, that set things up and Souza with the big home run. They beat us at our game, today.”

The offence, meanwhile, relied on big blows against the Rays and while Blue Jays hitters worked an impressive starting staff, they also struck out a total of 46 times over the four games.

“It’s those guys over there,” said Gibbons. “They’ve done that to us many times. They’re a tough team to play because they pitch. … Their bullpen always evolves year-to-year, they bring in new guys and they all do a good job. That’s how they’re made.”

The Blue Jays revolve around offence and Donaldson is integral.

He said he’s dealt with calf issues before, this time trouble started during last weekend’s exhibition games in Montreal “a little bit,” and picked up this week at Tropicana Field.

“This turf is difficult,” he said. “This is probably one of the hardest places to play consecutively just because it’s so hard. But we get to go back home and hopefully it’s better and I’m good to go from there.”

The softer turf in Toronto and a visit from the Red Sox awaits.

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