ANAHEIM, Calif. – A swarm of bees forced them to scurry off the field, Alex Meyer and four relievers kept sending them back into the dugout, and more frustration at the plate left them scrambling for solutions as they headed for Seattle.
There’s no doubt that the Toronto Blue Jays are in urgent need of something – anything – to ease their offensive woes after a 4-0 loss Sunday capped a four-game split with the Los Angeles Angels. They open a three-game series versus the Mariners on Monday and each of their remaining 13 games is against one of their direct competitors for a post-season berth.
If the Blue Jays are going to pull out of a September slide in which they’re now 5-11 and have scored only 55 runs while stranding 120 runners, the time is now. Disheartening losses Saturday, when they fell 6-1, and Sunday loosened their grip on a wild-card spot – they’re now a game behind the Baltimore Orioles for the top spot and just two games up on Detroit and Seattle – but they still control their own destiny.
"It’s been a rough go, I’m still trying to hold out hope that this is going to be that point where we really have to dig down deep, stick together as a team and that it’s going to help us come playoff time," said Troy Tulowitzki, one of the club’s steadying forces who hit the ball hard three times but had nothing to show for it.
"We’re right there, we play those teams that are right there with us, too, with our remaining schedule. We like where we’re at, obviously we know we can play better, and hopefully that comes out real soon."
The primary issue remains the lack of offence – they’ve scored three or less runs 10 times this month and they’re 11-49 this season when they do that – so showing some life at the plate will quite obviously cure a lot of ills.
That won’t be easy at Safeco Field with Taijuan Walker, Hisashi Iwakuma and Felix Hernandez on tap. Slumps early or in the middle of the season can be easier to manage because the marathon of 162 promises time for performances to correct, a safety valve that disappears in the finiteness of late September.
"That’s why veteran players are so important," said Tulowitzki. "They’ve been there, done that before, know how to take professional at-bats, know how to turn it around this time of the month, not get in their own head. That’s what I like about this clubhouse, we have a lot of those guys."
Still, the Blue Jays need to tighten up other facets of their game, too.
After a 13-minute bee delay in the third, Edwin Encarnacion led off the fourth with a double. But he truncated the rally when he paused on Jose Bautista’s grounder up the middle, saw it hit off Meyer’s glove and then charged for third as Cliff Pennington calmly fielded the ball at second. He was easily met at third, a base-running miscue similar to the one Devon Travis made to stunt a rally Saturday.
That came an inning after Kevin Pillar worked a one-out walk, advanced to third when Travis blooped a ball on a hit-and-run exactly where Pennington had just abandoned, and was stranded there when Josh Donaldson hit into a double play.
The leadoff batter also reached in the first, sixth, eighth and ninth innings, the Blue Jays getting bageled each time.
"Let me tell you something: There’s not a guy out in that room that is not busting his ass trying to come through. Sometimes it is what it is. Show up tomorrow, like they always do," manager John Gibbons said in a passionate defence of his players. "They’re human beings. I don’t care how good they’ve been, nobody likes to struggle. It’s a pressure business. These guys are right there in the arena, not on the outside looking in. It’s a battle and the reason they’re here is that they’re great competitors, talented guys. Sometimes you run into a road block and you struggle."
They haven’t been crisp in the field, either.
Juan Graterol’s run-scoring groundout in the second opened the scoring against a solid Marcus Stroman, but Travis didn’t field the ball cleanly, preventing the Blue Jays from even attempting a difficult inning-ending double play. That came after Rafael Ortega, the previous batter, reached on catcher’s interference to load the bases as his swing caught Dioner Navarro’s glove.
Stroman allowed two runs on seven hits and two walks in six innings and deserved a better fate.
"We just have to keep that confidence, that mentality," said Stroman. "We show up every day but it just hasn’t been going our way right now. We all have the feeling that things are going to turn our way and start to go in our favour."
In the seventh, after C.J. Cron’s sacrifice fly, Ortega blooped a single in front of a sliding Michael Saunders to make it 4-0 and as he relayed the ball to Donaldson at third, the batter easily advanced to second.
The 90 feet didn’t make a difference there, but it might have, and there are moments like those when it seems like the Blue Jays are carrying frustration onto the field, trying too hard to make things happen.
"I don’t know about that," countered Tulowitzki. "I think at times this team, maybe more than any other team, carries our emotion on our sleeve at times, that’s just the group of guys that we have. It can make us dangerous but it also can be a downfall at times. It’s a good group of guys in this clubhouse, we’ll bounce back, I’m sure of that."
When the Blue Jays are hitting, the little fissures get masked, but they’re not outhitting their flaws right now, and it’s impossible to outpitch a lack of offence to this degree. At this point of the season, it’s clear they’re not going to be last year’s pitcher-mauling juggernaut, but they’re much, much better than they’ve shown this month.
"They’re all aware of where we’re at," said Gibbons. "Nobody likes what is happening right now. Nobody feels good about that. We’re due for some wins and we’ll see if we get them. Reality is, in the end, if we’re good enough we’ll be there if we’re not, then we won’t. Nobody lucks into anything at this level when you play this many games. There are too many good teams. We’ll either be there if we’re good enough. If we’re not, we won’t."
Teams are never as bad as they look during a funk. The question is whether the Blue Jays can pull out of their rut before time runs out.