Tulowitzki’s struggles in focus after Blue Jays’ loss to Yankees

Masahiro Tanaka pitched a complete game, allowing one run and the New York Yankees defeated the Toronto Blue Jays to take a 1.5 game lead in the AL East.

TORONTO – Remember how well it went for Josh Donaldson right out of the gate? Has any Toronto Blue Jays player ever hit the ground running like he did?

Donaldson knew how friendly the Rogers Centre was going to be because he’d hit here as a member of the Oakland Athletics, yet he practically wept during his first batting practice here as a member of the Blue Jays when the balls flew into the seats. It was great, he said. All he had to do was make hard contact, compared to the Coliseum in Oakland where he needed to think about angles, loft, stuff of that nature.

Anybody can hit here. So why hasn’t Troy Tulowitzki hit here? This, of course, is a pressing question now that so many people seem to have forgotten it’s only Aug. 15 and that even with Saturday’s 4-1 shoe-is-on-the-other-foot loss to the New York Yankees, the Blue Jays are just 1.5 games back with 44 games to play – even though it is true that the Yankees do have three games in hand.

Download it now: iOS | Android | Windows

“I’m definitely not pressing – I’m focused on winning ball games and I think we’ve done a good job of that since I’ve been here,” Tulowitzki said, after the Yankees won their second of a three-game series that they can sweep with a win on Sunday afternoon. “There’s been some tough pitchers … and I’ve had some plays on me. Just one of those tough stretches I’ve had before and it won’t be my last time, either.

“I haven’t faced these guys before, but it’s no excuse. You see video on them and once you have an at-bat, you see release points. It’s just baseball; it’s a tough game.”

Tulowitzki has, in fact, gone 12-for-48 (.250) with a pair of home runs in 12 games here since being acquired from the Colorado Rockies. That’s better than what he’s hitting overall with the Blue Jays – just .217 (13-for-60) – but it’s just taken two losses to the Yankees for people to start wondering whether manager John Gibbons needs to nuke his lineup, which currently has Tulowitzki leading off.

Tulowitzki went 0-for-3 with a walk Saturday in front of the ninth sellout crowd of the season, and was stranded on first base when, after he’d drawn a walk from Masahiro Tanaka (9-5) to load the bases with none out and Donaldson had driven in Ryan Goins with a sacrifice fly, Tanaka induced Jose Bautista to ground out before striking out Edwin Encarnacion.

Gibbons is on sound tactical ground in leading off Tulowitzki and wanting his best hitters to get as many at-bats as possible. The way to do that is to put them at the top of the order. Yet Ben Revere might be an option as a left-handed leadoff hitter, at least, and with Kevin Pillar hitting .146 this month and Russell Martin, frankly, playing like he’s injured and mired in an 4-for-34 (.118) funk, you wonder whether Gibbons might eventually need to make a move.

Gibbons shrugged when asked about it before the game. In Friday’s 4-3 loss, he noted, it was Tulowitzki at the plate with two out in the ninth inning, engaging in an epic battle with Yankees reliever Andrew Miller. The outcome wasn’t what he wanted, but the matchup was OK.

The Yankees won Saturday on solo home runs by Carlos Beltran and Mark Teixeira off Marco Estrada (10-7) and add-on runs in the eighth and ninth inning off the Blue Jays bullpen. Estrada, who was suffering from a bout of the flu after the game, gave up just three hits in six innings, striking out three and walking three.

“I guess the line looks pretty good, but I missed a lot of spots today,” said Estrada. “I wasn’t my usual self. I got away with a lot, and it seemed like when they were swinging at it I made the right pitch. But for the most part … I thought I was all over the place.”

It seems as if this series is role reversal compared to the Blue Jays’ sweep of the Yankees. Suddenly, it is the Yankees delivering the telling blow; it is the Blue Jays bullpen that looks a little frayed, after Beltran’s stunning three-run blast in Friday’s win ended a streak of 25 consecutive scoreless innings by Blue Jays relievers.

Tanaka worked over the Blue Jays, earning his fourth career complete game by striking out eight, walking three and giving up five hits. He was masterful with the bases loaded, picking his spots inside against Bautista and Encarnacion after working steadily away to the previous hitters.

“Great split, dominant fastball … that’s what those guys do,” said Gibbons. “That was a big shot, and we got a sacrifice fly and that’s it. That’s the way it is sometimes when the guy on the mound is good, similar to what we have done to them. It’s the way it goes; when they’re on, they’re on, you know?”

Said Tulowitzki: “Tanaka is a good pitcher. He wants you to hit his pitch. He doesn’t like to challenge you, especially in hitter’s counts, and he did a good job keeping us off-balance. To throw a complete game against this lineup is pretty impressive.”

It was the first time the Blue Jays have lost consecutive games since July 26-28 and whatever Jekyll and Hyde stuff that makes Drew Hutchison better at home than on the road needs to be channelled on Sunday to avoid a bandwagon-emptying sweep.

As for Tulowitzki? His battle with Miller was still being talked about Saturday, because there was a whiff of something special about the moment. He shrugged when he was asked how memorable it was.

“It would have been memorable if I’d got a hit and kept our winning streak alive,” he said. “But one thing, talk about my slump or whatever it is, I’m still battling and having good at-bats. I still think I’m getting on base – drawing some walks, putting the ball in play. It’s just one of those things.”

OK. But when does that Rogers Centre home-field advantage kick in? The big offensive moments for this team this season have often been bombs, many of them hit at home.

“I wouldn’t say it’s a hitter’s park, to be honest,” Tulowitzki said. “If you get the ball in the air, yeah. The ball flies. But the turf’s slow, and you have to really hit it hard to get it through.”

When submitting content, please abide by our submission guidelines, and avoid posting profanity, personal attacks or harassment. Should you violate our submissions guidelines, we reserve the right to remove your comments and block your account. Sportsnet reserves the right to close a story’s comment section at any time.