ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – Rarely does a manager get ejected three times in a five-day span when things are going particularly well on the field.
Between injuries, umpires and misplays, the Toronto Blue Jays have experienced their share of frustration in recent days, and it showed when manager John Gibbons got tossed for the second game in a row after arguing a balk call on Ryan Tepera that put the potential winning run into scoring position for the Tampa Bay Rays.
For a while, the possibility of a Rays series sweep seemed all too real. But Tepera escaped with the game still tied 1-1 and a Kevin Pillar double led to a run in the top of the ninth inning to set up a 2-1 Blue Jays win that allows them to finish their three-city road trip with a 19-16 record.
“You know what, I love this team,” Gibbons said. “I love the character of this team.”
A strong start from Marco Estrada kept the Blue Jays competitive in a game started by Rays ace Chris Archer. It had been a full month since Estrada’s last truly effective start, and the way the Blue Jays’ rotation has been pitching, expecting a turnaround Sunday might have seemed overly optimistic. Estrada delivered, though, allowing just four hits over six scoreless innings.
“I believe in the guy,” Gibbons said. “Nobody ever goes through this business scot-free. Sometimes you get roughed up, sometimes you get out of whack. But I also have confidence and faith in these guys and a lot of loyalty to them, since I know what they can do.”
Estrada walked four but limited hard contact thanks to an effective change-up that he threw 40 times. This outing represented a welcome improvement for the right-hander, who had allowed at least four runs in each of his last four outings.
“I located pretty well,” Estrada said. “I still walked a lot of guys, but I didn’t miss by much to be honest with you … overall I was locating the ball really well.”
The Blue Jays’ first run of the game came at a significant cost. With Anthony Alford at third base and one out in the top of the fifth inning, Aledmys Diaz hit a ground ball to first base. As Alford crossed home plate, Diaz raced Archer to first base but stepped on the bag awkwardly and sprained his left ankle.
Diaz left the field on a wheelchair and was later walking with crutches and a walking boot, but x-rays revealed no fracture. Lourdes Gurriel Jr. replaced him at shortstop, and would be the leading candidate for playing time at short in the seemingly likely event that Diaz requires a stint on the disabled list.
Alford showed off his diverse skillset Sunday in his first big-league start of the season, reaching base with a single that left his bat at 106.4 m.p.h. and stealing second for his first career stolen base to set up Diaz’s single. The top outfield prospect had joined the Blue Jays Saturday as depth while Curtis Granderson recovers from hamstring tightness.
“He’s got a chance to be really, really good,” Gibbons said of Alford. “He’s a lot like Teoscar (Hernandez). Complete players. I’m sure in the near future they’ll be anchoring a couple corner spots in this outfield.”
As for the ejection, Gibbons was frustrated to see the umpires call a balk at such a pivotal moment in the game.
“Nobody calls balks anymore,” Gibbons said. “It’s nut-cutting time in the game, close game. Really? You can go through a list of every pitcher in baseball and you could nail them if you wanted to, but nobody ever does.”
“Don’t get in the way of the game,” Gibbons continued. “Now if everybody (calls balks) all the time I get it, but that was my frustration.”
The Rays might have generated more offence were it not for two base-running mistakes from speedy centre fielder Mallex Smith. He attempted to steal home in the bottom of the third inning, only to have Estrada throw him out. Two innings later, he was on first when a pop up dropped in shallow right field for a hit but only reached third since he wasn’t running at full speed in anticipation of a putout.
Meanwhile, the Blue Jays’ centre fielder continues to produce at the plate. Pillar collected two doubles on the day and is hitting .316/.363/.549 on the season after scoring the winning run. But when asked to identify the reason for his success, Pillar acknowledged that he can’t necessarily explain it himself.
“I wish I knew,” Pillar said. “Really it’s just being comfortable. I’ve been around long enough. I’ve faced some of these guys and I’m just doing a better job of sticking to my plan and choosing my spots to be aggressive.”
Thankfully for the Blue Jays, that aggressiveness led to just enough offence Sunday. As Gibbons said, “We definitely needed that.”