Where has all the hitting gone?
At one point early in the season, the big bats of the Toronto Blue Jays were their meal ticket, the primary reason the American League club got off to as fast - and surprising - start.
Over the first 10 games of the season, the Blue Jays mashed 17 home runs and the team was hitting a lofty .313 as it raced to the front of the class in the AL East.
These days, as the losses continue to pile up - the Blue Jays (27-20) dropped their sixth in a row here yesterday, 10-2 to the Atlanta Braves (23-20) - the offence is clearly struggling and the club is in a quandary.
The interleague setback was the third in a row against the Braves. The Jays suffered their second consecutive sweep on the road after dropping three in Boston against the Red Sox last week.
The Jays, who will now head to Baltimore for a three-game series against the Orioles to conclude a disappointing trip, have now gone five games without hitting a home run.
They've scored just 10 runs and batted just .248 during the recent drought and, most importantly, have now fallen out of first place in the AL East for the first time since April 14. They are half a game behind the Red Sox, who beat up the New York Mets 12-5 yesterday.
These days, the Jays have no time for timely hitting.
The Jays left an embarrassment of riches on board against Atlanta - they were 1-for-12 hitting with runners in scoring position - and that cleared the way for the lopsided victory by the Braves.
Toronto has hit .143 (7-for-49) with runners in scoring position over the course of the losing string.
With the game tied at 2-2 in the top of the seventh inning, the Blue Jays loaded the bases with one out.
Adam Lind lunged and missed on an 83-mile-an-hour slider from Atlanta pitcher Eric O'Flaherty for the strikeout before Jose Bautista lofted a harmless fly to right field to end the threat.
"Obviously part of struggling [is]you're not taking advantage of those opportunities as much as we've been accustomed to," said Toronto outfielder Vernon Wells, who was 2-for-4 with two stolen bases and scored both of his team's runs. "We're going to go through periods like this and hopefully right the ship."
In their next at-bat, the Braves erupted for seven runs to sink the Blue Jays.
Toronto first baseman Lyle Overbay did not help matters when he failed to snag a catchable line drive off the bat of pinch hitter Chipper Jones with one out and the bases loaded.
The ball flicked off Overbay's glove and into right field, scoring the go-ahead run that put the Braves in flight.
Jays relievers Shawn Camp and Jason Frasor combined to allow seven runs in the seventh inning. Camp (0-2) took the loss.
Wells continues to struggle batting cleanup, a spot normally reserved for a team's big boppers.
But he failed to drive in a run yesterday for the 17th game in a row. His runs batted in drought dates to May 6.
He went 0-for-1 hitting with runners in scoring position yesterday and is now .161 on the year, by far the worst on the team among the regulars.
"I take a lot of responsibility for what's going on and it's frustrating for everyone," Wells said. "When things are going poorly guys want to do too much to kind of get everybody out of it. It's just a matter of taking a deep breath and getting back to our approaches."
Wells and Alex Rios, Toronto's No.3 hitter, were a combined 0-for-16 over the course of the first two games against Atlanta, not exactly the kind of production one expects from the meaty part of the order.
On the year, Wells has 21 RBIs, well below some of his other AL cleanup counterparts.
Carlos Pena, who bats fourth for the Tampa Bay Rays, led the league with 38 RBIs entering yesterday's play. Miguel Cabrera of the Detroit Tigers was second with 33.
Gaston said he is not contemplating shuffling either Wells or Rios within the batting order - not that he has many options.
"To me you leave them where they are," he said. "Moving them around is not going to solve anything. Moving them around is only going to maybe break their confidence.
"It's a long season, guys are going to be up and down at certain times. Right now they're on the down side as far as getting hits."
Scott Richmond got the start for the Blue Jays and lasted five innings, giving up two runs off five hits, including home run shots by Kelly Johnson and Brian McCann, two left-handed hitters.
On the year, Richmond has surrendered eight home runs, all to left-handed hitters.
Asked what he might do to be more successful against lefties, Richmond responded: "Learn another pitch."
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