ST. PETERSBURG, FLA. — Entering Wednesday’s play, the Toronto Blue Jays had scored four runs or less in 41 of their 67 games this season. They had won exactly five of those contests — a .122 winning percentage.
It’s not good. But Wednesday presented a terrific opportunity to improve that unfortunate statistic. Toronto’s starter was solid, as J.A. Happ threw five scoreless innings. Its bullpen was humming right along behind him. The offence generated opportunity after opportunity, putting runners on base in each of the first five innings. All they needed was a couple runs.
But they never came. The Blue Jays wasted not only all those chances with runners on, but a typically strong outing from Happ, as the Tampa Bay Rays walked it off in the 9th, scoring the game’s only run and completing a three-game sweep. Matt Duffy came through with the winning swing, grounding a single to left off Ryan Tepera to score Mallex Smith, who reached on a one-out double earlier in the inning.
For the Blue Jays, it was their fourth sweep of the season, all of them coming in the last four weeks. It was a second consecutive game without an extra-base hit, the first time that’s happened since 2011. And it was yet another tough series at Tropicana Field, where Toronto is 33-67 since 2008.
“Yeah, we’re horse**** down here. I’ve got no explanation for it,” Blue Jays manager John Gibbons said. “That’s just the way it is. I don’t even think about it anymore, if you want to know the truth.”
Happ battled control issues at times — he walked three for only the fourth time in 14 starts this season — missing up with fastballs and away with change-ups to right-handed hitters.
But when he was in the zone, the Rays never squared him up, mustering only a soft third-inning single to go along with their three walks over Happ’s five innings.
“He just hangs in there — when he needs to make a pitch he normally makes it,” Gibbons said. “He battled and, shoot, he was pretty damn good.”
Really, Happ should have pitched much deeper into this game. But his first inning was a tedious one, as he threw 30 pitches — including 10 in a pesky plate appearance by Jake Bauers, who fouled off seven consecutive pitches before reaching on an error — which helped get him to 98 by the end of the fifth.
“They certainly battled and fouled off some good pitches today,” Happ said. “There was a couple to Bauers in the later at-bats that I didn’t quite get to that down-and-away I was trying to get to. But in that first at-bat, I felt like I was making good pitches and he was finding a way to foul them off.
“I try to give credit where credit’s due — I thought they did a good job of fouling some good pitches off. I felt like I was executing for the most part with the game plan. And they made it difficult. Certainly, I’d like to go more than five innings. But I was happy to keep them off the board at the same time.”
Not only should he have gone deeper, Happ should have come away with a win. But the Blue Jays offence couldn’t find a barrel with men on base, going 0-for-7 with runners in scoring position and leaving eight on base.
“We had some chances, especially early on,” Gibbons said. “We had them under the gun, just couldn’t get that big hit.”
Oh, the opportunities they squandered. Facing Rays starter Wilmer Font, the Blue Jays put two runners on with one out in the first, but Yangervis Solarte and Kevin Pillar couldn’t come through with a hit.
In the second, Toronto had two runners on with none out, but Aledmys Diaz flew out before Gio Urshela grounded into an inning-ending double play. Curtis Granderson’s lead-off single in the third was also stranded before the Blue Jays again put two runners on in the fourth.
Can you guess what happened next? Urshela hit a weak pop up to end the inning, as the Blue Jays stranded their sixth and seventh runners.
We can go on. Granderson led off the fifth with his third single of the night, and was quickly erased when Justin Smoak hit into a double play. Teoscar Hernandez came through with a well-struck single after that, but was ultimately forced out at second as Solarte hit a groundball a pitch later.
That was the beginning of a run of nine consecutive outs for the Blue Jays, lasting all the way through to the eighth when Solarte came back up and hit a two-out single. Pillar promptly struck out on three pitches to leave Toronto’s eighth runner on base.
In the top of the ninth, Diaz thought he’d broken through with a hard line drive to the wall in left. But Rays outfielder Johnny Field made a terrific catch as Diaz slammed his helmet into the dirt while rounding first base.
“We’re streaky,” Gibbons said of his team’s offensive struggles. “We’ll get on rolls and then we’ll get hot. And there’s times we’ll get cold. That’s just the way it works sometimes.”
Once Happ left, Seunghwan Oh and Danny Barnes contributed scoreless innings, while Aaron Loup and Ryan Tepera combined for a clean eighth. But when Tepera returned for the ninth, he gave up the double to Smith, let him reach third, and then watched Duffy single a well-located fastball past a diving Urshela to end the game.
Meanwhile, things are beginning to move on the injury front. Marcus Stroman was scheduled to throw up to four innings for the Dunedin Blue Jays Wednesday night, in his first of an expected two rehab outings as he works his way back from right shoulder fatigue.
Josh Donaldson has also been in Dunedin this week, facing live pitching from Blue Jays minor-leaguers as he recovers from sprained left calf. He’ll face a big test Thursday, when he’s expected to test his legs on the base paths at Rogers Centre.
If that goes well, he could rejoin the Blue Jays this weekend, or potentially begin a brief rehab assignment with the triple-A Buffalo Bisons to test whether he’s truly over the injury.