TORONTO — Marco Estrada described himself as "rusty" in one of his shortest outings of the season, perhaps a result, he said, of the Blue Jays new six-man rotation.
The Blue Jays all-star yielded three runs (two earned) on seven hits and four walks over five shaky innings in a 9-2 loss to the Tampa Bay Rays on Tuesday night. It was only the third time in 21 starts this season that Estrada (7-5) has failed to make it through at least six innings.
"I’ve got to do a better job, I guess, getting ready," Estrada said, wondering himself whether the six-man rotation factored into his struggles Tuesday.
"It’s no excuse," he added. "I got beat today."
The Blue Jays (64-50) moved to a six-man rotation last week to prevent starter Aaron Sanchez (11-2, 2.85 ERA), from moving to the bullpen while still managing an innings limit on the 24-year-old.
Estrada last pitched six days earlier, a seven inning one-run gem in Houston which saw him strike out seven and walk none. The 33-year-old was nowhere near that sharp against the Rays, struggling with control over the course of a 113-pitch effort — the second-most pitches he’s thrown in a game this season.
The night began ominously enough for him. Logan Forsythe led off the game with a home run on an innocent-looking drive to right that just cleared the wall behind Jose Bautista.
Estrada, who had given up only two earned runs in three career starts against the Rays, managed only one clean inning, somehow working his way through troublesome spots.
After yielding a pair of singles in the third inning, the second of which saw Rays catcher Luke Maile advance to third after Bautista tripped over his feet trying to make a throw, Estrada walked Evan Longoria to load the bases. With only one out, Estrada struck out Brad Miller swinging on a change-up before forcing Mikie Mahtook to pop out and end the inning.
Estrada was not as fortunate an inning later. He issued a pair of walks to Corey Dickerson and Maile before Forsythe, on a 1-1 count, ripped a grounder off the pitcher’s mound that Devon Travis tracked down but could not transfer for a throw to either second or first. Travis bobbled the ball again as Dickerson aggressively pursued home, scoring just ahead of a throw for a 2-0 Rays lead.
Tampa kept it coming in the fifth.
Miller doubled to right on a ball that leapt over Justin Smoak’s glove at first. Steven Souza Jr. drove in Miller with a RBI-single. Estrada only just avoided more damage when Tim Beckham blasted a shot to the second deck in left that hooked just left of the foul pole.
Estrada struck out Maile on his 113th pitch. He ended the night with six punchouts.
The Jays right-hander said he thought he was just missing with pitches outside the zone. The Rays, he noted otherwise, put together quality at-bats, working deep counts in pounding out 15 hits on the night.
Estrada said his back, a source of trouble earlier this season, was fine.
"I haven’t seen him battle for five innings since I’ve known him to be honest with you, (but) I think he did tonight," Jays manager John Gibbons said.
"I’ve got to be better than that," Estrada added, "(I) can’t just go five innings."
If struggling, Estrada kept the Jays close (3-0) and in the bottom half of the fifth they rallied with two runs of their own off Rays starter Drew Smyly (4-11).
Singles for Troy Tulowitzki and Michael Saunders were scored on Melvin Upton Jr.’s sacrifice fly — his first RBI as a Jay — and a Travis RBI-single. It was the 12th hit in the last six games for Travis, who had a career-high four-hit game on Monday night.
The Rays pushed their lead to 5-2 in the sixth, plating a pair off rookie Danny Barnes. Barnes was promptly optioned to triple-A Buffalo following the game.
The Jays threatened in the bottom half of the inning, loading the bases with nobody out on singles from Josh Donaldson and Edwin Encarnacion along with a Russell Martin walk. Smyly escaped though, retiring Tulowitzki (pop-up), Saunders (strikeout) and Smoak (pop-up) in order.
Gibbons felt his club, which scuffled offensively last week, may have been overly aggressive. Tulowitzki, notably, swung at the first pitch from Smyly in popping out to first.
"That’s the difference-maker right there," Gibbons said of the failed rally.
Tampa continued to pick apart Jays pitching, hammering reliever Scott Feldman for six hits and four runs in the top of the seventh. The Rays rung off five straight hits at one point, including a two-run single for Longoria. Feldman has struggled since he was acquired from Houston. He gave up three earned runs in his previous outing, a loss to the Royals on Sunday.