TORONTO — As his 3-1 pitch approached, Luke Maile planted his front foot, took a healthy cut, and got jammed in on the hands. But, bless this game, the ball came off his bat at 65 m.p.h. and fell perfectly into the no-man’s land of shallow left field, where it was bobbled as Maile cruised into second with a double.
And with that, a mighty cheer went up from the 21,703 heroes of the Rogers Centre stands, as the Toronto Blue Jays had a hit. The dozen batters that preceded Maile from the beginning of the second inning onward had failed to do as much.
That’s just how things were going for the Blue Jays Friday, as the club wasted some fantastic pitching from Marco Estrada. Even though Estrada eventually buckled in the seventh, allowing a trio of doubles when he was asked to extend his stellar outing just a little too far, Toronto’s hitters certainly weren’t giving him much margin for error.
Such is life for a team that can’t pitch when it hits, and can’t hit when it pitches. Estrada was only the third Toronto starter to get an out in the seventh inning this month, but his offence no-showed against Oakland Athletics right-hander Josh Lucas, a career minor-league reliever who came into the night with 10.1 big-league innings. That, more or less, is why the Blue Jays lost, 3-1.
“We’ve all just got to do a better job. If we’re pitching, we’re not hitting. If we’re hitting, we’re not pitching,” Estrada said. “We’ve just got to put it together, that’s all.”
Until his final three batters, Estrada was brilliant. He filled up the zone, throwing 73 per cent of his pitches for strikes and not walking a batter. He used almost exclusively his fastball and change-up — that’s all he really needed — as he earned 14 swinging strikes. And he suppressed hard contact for the vast majority of his night, with Oakland’s hitters averaging just a 79 m.p.h. exit velocity on balls in play.
His lone mistake prior to the seventh came in the third, when he left a fastball in a bad place to Athletics centre fielder Dustin Fowler, who lobbed it over the wall in left for a solo shot. It was the 11th home run Estrada’s surrendered in 9 starts, tying two others for the third-most of any MLB pitcher this season.
But, otherwise, Estrada was dominant. Right up until he had two out in the seventh with his pitch count at a manageable 96. That’s when Chad Pinder, Fowler, and Josh Phegley doubled in succession, giving Oakland the 3-1 lead it never surrendered.
“It was very frustrating. I had three guys with an 0-2 count and I couldn’t put anybody away. It almost ruins the outing. It did — we ended up losing because of it,” Estrada said. “I threw the ball pretty well. Made a lot of good pitches.
“It’s unfortunate the way it ended. Having three guys 0-2 and not being able to put anybody away, it just sucks.”
Blue Jays manager John Gibbons was probably going to ride of die with Estrada in that situation no matter what happened. But those kind of late-outing rallies during a third trip through the order are ones that could be avoided if Toronto’s overworked bullpen was available to take over sooner. And could be inconsequential if Toronto’s offence had showed up earlier, or even at all.
The latter is particularly unforgivable as, for a second straight game, Oakland had an unplanned bullpen day, after a starter exited an outing early due to injury.
Toronto had gotten a pair of hits off Brett Anderson in the first, before inning ended with Curtis Granderson gunned out at home by Matt Joyce after a questionable send by third base coach Luis Rivera. Then, as Anderson warmed up prior to the second inning, he felt something awry in his shoulder and was forced from the game.
Lucas replaced Anderson to begin the second and promptly struck out six of the first eight Blue Jays he faced, not allowing a hit all the way until Maile’s flare in the fifth. Dwight Smith Jr. followed it up by grounding out on the first pitch he saw, unfortunately not even placing it where it could have allowed Maile to advance.
But Gio Urshela — acquired last week in a minor transaction with Cleveland — came through, lining a soft single into right to cash Maile with two outs. It was just about the only thing, offensively speaking, Blue Jays fans had to cheer about all night.
Justin Smoak and Yangervis Solarte attempted a rally in the eighth, both reaching base with two out. But Oakland closer Blake Treinen got Kevin Pillar to swing over a wicked 98 m.p.h. sinker to end the threat. Treinen returned to work a clean ninth, as the Blue Jays went down quietly.
Toronto is now 6-11 for the month and a game under .500 after once being seven games over. They’ve lost 10 of their last 13 at home, and are winless in six consecutive series. Generally speaking, they’re losing a lot. Not preventing runs when you’re scoring them, and not scoring runs when you’re preventing them, will result in that.
“That’s when you lose games — that’s what happens,” said Josh Donaldson, who walked twice and stole a base. “You have to play all three facets of the game. Offensively, defensively, and pitching. And, in order to win ball games, you need to do that well.”
But, despite all this, Donaldson says Friday’s loss was actually encouraging. The Blue Jays may have mustered only six hits, five of them singles. They may have struck out 15 times. They may have only advanced four runners to second base. They may have played this entire month beneath a thick, grey cloud. But Donaldson says he sees bright skies on the horizon.
“You know what, I felt like there was a lot of positives to take away from it,” he said. “I feel like today was a very positive step in the right direction. I feel like, before today, there might have been a little bit of frustration going on. But I felt like today we were able to kind of get some things going in other areas.”
And what, exactly, did Donaldson like about what he saw?
“Just how we approached it,” he said. “Marco set the tone early on. He did an outstanding job. Bullpen did their normal thing. They came in and put some zeros up. Offensively, I felt like we had some pretty decent at-bats. But, overall, in the last week, I feel like it’s starting to turn in the right direction for us.”
The Blue Jays are now 1-5 over the last seven days. They’ve been outscored in those games, 36-25. They’re certainly going in a direction. But it doesn’t look like the right one.