Blue Jays offence leaves no margin for error on mound again

Brett Gardner made a leaping grab at the top of the left-field wall, clutching the ball as he banged into the fence on Justin Smoak's drive for the final out, and the Yankees held off AL East-leading Toronto 7-6.

NEW YORK – The ongoing absence of decisive offensive onslaughts lately have left Toronto Blue Jays pitchers with virtually no margin for error on the mound, and even the slightest mistake can instantly turn a game. That’s precisely what happened Tuesday, twice actually, as an Aaron Sanchez gem was spoiled by Tyler Austin’s go-ahead, two-run homer in the seventh, and, after a rally in the eighth, a Jason Grilli fastball well off the plate was ambushed by Didi Gregorius and another lead was blown.

By the time all was said and done, a wild 7-6 New York Yankees victory provided a heavy boot to the stomach for the Blue Jays, who rallied with two in the ninth but lost when with the bases loaded, Brett Gardner robbed Justin Smoak with a leaping grab at the left-field wall.

The ball, a few inches short of clearing the wall entirely, nearly popped out of Gardner’s glove before settling, as a joyous Yankees’ celebration in the infield contrasted the Blue Jays’ utter disbelief.

"I felt like I hit it decent, barrelled it, thought it might have had a chance," lamented Smoak. "Gardner made a great play on it right there."

The 77-61 Blue Jays’ lead atop the American League East dropped to a half-game pending the result of Boston’s contest at San Diego, while the Baltimore Orioles pulled within one game after thumping the Tampa Bay Rays 11-2. The Yankees, at 72-65, are only 4.5 games off the pace.

"We’re never out of it," said Sanchez. "We were two inches away from scoring two more runs there, maybe even three, that’s a testament to the guys we have in this clubhouse. But it’s a tough one for us."

Austin’s homer on a two-seamer that cut back over the plate gave the Yankees a 3-2 lead but the Blue Jays replied with two out in the eighth, as Troy Tulowitzki singled up the middle off Adam Warren, Dalton Pompey came in to run, Melvin Upton Jr., walked against Tommy Layne and Kevin Pillar belted a two-run double off Ben Heller that brought his teammates to their feet in the dugout, electrified by the type of pivotal hit they’ve too often lacked.

But with two men on, they couldn’t add on as Devon Travis struck out against Chasen Shreve and that proved costly in the bottom half. Grilli walked leadoff man Jacoby Ellsbury and after a Gary Sanchez strikeout, Gregorius tripled him home. Starlin Castro’s sacrifice fly brought in the go-ahead run and after a two-out Brian McCann walk, Chase Headley parked his 13th of the season over the wall in right for a 7-4 lead.

Dellin Betances came in for the ninth and the game looked over, but he walked Jose Bautista and Josh Donaldson to open the inning, threw a wild pitch that advanced the runners, and then surrendered an RBI single to Edwin Encarnacion on the 10th pitch of a brilliant at-bat.

After Russell Martin went down looking, Dioner Navarro walked to load the bases and Upton beat out an infield single on Betances’ 40th pitch to make it a one-run game. Blake Parker, the eighth Yankees pitcher, caught Pillar looking at a curveball before Smoak’s smash cruelly fell a couple inches short.

"We do that, we do that all the time," said manager John Gibbons. "A couple of spots, you add one here or there, keep that one or two extra runs off the board, it might be different. But they battle, they always battle."

While the Blue Jays certainly need their pitchers to hold leads better, the offence missed multiple chances to provide some breathing room.

In the fifth, Headley robbed Donaldson of extra bases with a diving stab of his grounder before Encarnacion’s smash to deep right was caught near the wall to strand men on second and third. Then in the sixth, Smoak grounded into a 3-6-1 double play with the bases loaded when a run or two might have put the game away.

"It shifts the game quick," Smoak said of failing to put up add-on runs. "I came up there with the bases loaded there and double play, that’s never any good. I tried to have a better at-bat there in the ninth, it just didn’t go our way."

Added Gibbons: "A lot of lost opportunities along the way, no doubt about that."

Sanchez, making his second start since a 10-day break at single-A Dunedin to limit his workload, was strong, allowing only three runs on five hits and two walks with four strikeouts over seven innings.

McCann burned him for a solo shot in the fourth that tied the game 1-1 and then there was no further damage against him until Austin’s drive after an Aaron Judge single.

"I thought for the most part I had control of the game pretty much all night," said Sanchez. "Barring the three pitches I made mistakes on, I felt like my curveball was good when I needed it, my changeup was good when I needed it and I felt like the at-bat with McCann, if I get that strike one, it changes the at-bat maybe and that situation doesn’t happen. But it is what it is, and you have to move on from it."

The Blue Jays opened the scoring in the first when Encarnacion’s 37th homer of the season sailed into the second deck in left. Luis Cessa held things there until the fifth, when Bautista’s RBI single opened up a 2-1 lead.

Sanchez will make his next start Sunday against the Red Sox, as the Blue Jays bumped R.A. Dickey from his scheduled day. That gives them Marco Estrada, J.A. Happ and Sanchez for the pivotal series, which sets up well on the mound, but a little more offence at the right times is needed, too.

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