Sweep in Seattle a big blow to Jays’ chances

Kendrys Morales hit a two-run home run in the first inning to help the Seattle Mariners beat the Toronto Blue Jays 2-0 Wednesday night, completing a sweep of the three-game series.

Let’s start with the fans. They came in the thousands, making the pilgrimage down to Seattle from all over the western provinces; drawn with eagerness and excitement for the lone opportunity they receive to see their favourite team in action.

They wore Blue Jays paraphernalia new and old. They drank and they sang and they carried on. They fired arrows at Fernando Rodney in the ninth for two straight nights, a noble, if utterly ineffective effort to hex the idiosyncratic closer with his own personal celebratory performance. They turned Safeco Field into a home game on the road.

What a shame it is that their beloved outfit could muster just four runs in the three games they played on the upper west coast, culminating in a truly pluckless attempt at avoiding a sweep Wednesday night, which ended with a 2-0 Blue Jays loss — the team’s ninth defeat in 12 games in the month of August. There have been some incredibly intoxicating highs and dauntingly discouraging lows during this Blue Jays season, but the club’s recent string of non-success, which started with dropping the final three games of a series against the borderline-inoperative Astros, has felt especially disheartening for Blue Jays fans, no matter how you slice it.

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The sweep in Seattle certainly doesn’t sink the season. Not by any means. But these three losses, against a team the Blue Jays are directly battling for the second wild card spot, during a three-day stretch when the American League East-leading Orioles won both the games they played (one of their scheduled three with the Yankees was rained out), is a legitimate blow to Toronto’s playoff chances. It’s not over. But it’s not gonna be easy.

The offensive slump that consumed much of the team in Seattle is somewhat mystifying considering that, aside from the returning-this-weekend-and-not-a-moment-too-soon Edwin Encarnacion, the club has all of its premier hitters in the lineup — with apologies to Brett Lawrie. The batting order one-through-six that John Gibbons filled out Wednesday night contained a half dozen truly capable major league hitters who have proven throughout their careers that they can perform very well against professional pitching, which is not something you could say about this baseball team many times since they hit a rash of injuries in July.

The bottom three in the order left something to be desired, with the playing-above-his-head Munenori Kawaski, the .202/.265/.404-since-the-beginning-of-July Juan Francisco and the only-here-because-he-can-catch-a-funky-pitch Josh Thole rounding things out. But you couldn’t be judged for looking at the top two-thirds of the lineup and feeling like the team is well set up for offensive success.

Of course, that’s not how it went Wednesday night, and that’s not how it’s gone since the beginning of last week’s homestand when the Blue Jays began to face some very, very good pitching.

Against Detroit last weekend, the Blue Jays were able to weather the storm against that elite pitching, essentially being neutered by Max Scherzer and David Price, before getting into the Tigers’ steaming refuse depository of a bullpen, which Toronto picked apart twice for extra innings, walk-off victories.

Unfortunately for the Blue Jays, the Mariners possess the best bullpen in the American League, one with a 2.37 ERA and an 80.6 percent left on base percentage. So when Felix Hernandez, Chris Young and Iwakuma each tagged out of the game after taking their turns muffling the Blue Jays lineup, there wasn’t exactly an easy opponent jumping in over the ropes.

R.A. Dickey did what he could, as he generally has throughout the season. He struck out two and walked four, which is not the order one would prefer those numbers to be in, but he held the Mariners to just a pair of runs, which should be enough for Toronto’s loaded offence to work with. It wasn’t. Adam Lind had a couple hits, Jose Reyes had a couple too, and Jose Bautista continued his preposterous streak of reaching base with one of his own — he’s reached safely in 21 consecutive games and 106 of his 115 starts this season — but that offence was far too scattered. Nine runners were stranded and the Blue Jays went 0-for-5 with runners in scoring position, which aren’t always the most operative stats but seem to tell Wednesday night’s story.

There just aren’t a lot of positive things to say about this ball club right now. Yet, in spite of it all, the Blue Jays remain in second place in the AL East, if only because the New York Yankees have been similarly ineffective of late, while the Tampa Bay Rays and Boston Red Sox have continued to spin their wheels at the bottom of the division.

Meanwhile, the Orioles are 9-3 this month, continuing the searing pace they established with a 17-8 July, a pace that at the time seemed entirely unsustainable. Baltimore is now 7.5 games up on the division, which is a taller lead than the Blue Jays built back in those halcyon days of June when this team was making all kinds of noise. Toronto still has six games left with Baltimore late this September, which could swing the division dramatically if the Blue Jays can close the gap with the Orioles by then. But if the ground gained isn’t significant, the Blue Jays will have to win four or five of those contests at the very least to even make this interesting. And its entirely possible that if the team continues to flounder, those September games with Baltimore might not mean much at all.

So, yes, these aren’t especially sunny days for Blue Jays faithful, who basically have two options at this point: you can check out completely and presume the team’s inevitable failure to reach the post-season, or you can take solace in the fact that the club is within striking distance this late in the year, playing meaningful games well into the end of summer for the first time in you know how long. You can find belief in the reality that bigger deficits have been overcome, better teams have been felled, crazier things have happened. No one said being a fan would be easy.

And, man, those west coast fans. Every time they were shown on the broadcast they were having a great time, in spite of their team’s failure on the field. They lined up outside the gates early to catch a glimpse of batting practice, they proactively got behind the team late in games (something that rarely happens in Toronto), and they made the ballpark erupt in the ninth Wednesday night, when a reviewed call went against the home team.

The fans were something else. And they deserved so much better.

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