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The Jays’ Jose Bautista reacts to striking out against the Orioles in Toronto on Thursday. (Mark Blinch/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
The Jays’ Jose Bautista reacts to striking out against the Orioles in Toronto on Thursday. (Mark Blinch/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Blue Jays blow wild-card cushion with loss to Orioles Add to ...

The Toronto Blue Jays knew going into Thursday’s game that life would be easier if they did not have to spend time fending off the dogged advances of the Baltimore Orioles in baseball’s wild-card race.

A win would give them a two-game bulge over the Orioles for the first American League wild-card seed with both teams having three left to play heading into the final weekend of the regular season.

Even the unpredictable Blue Jays would have trouble spitting the bit on that one.

But this is the Blue Jays we are talking about, after all. Why do things the easy way when there’s a mountain to climb? It has been their modus operandi all year. And old habits certainly die hard, as the Blue Jays proved at Rogers Centre.

In their final regular-season home game of 2016, the Blue Jays finished not with a bang but a definitive whimper as the Orioles slapped Toronto for a crucial 4-0 victory before close to 48,000 dispirited fans.

In taking two of three from Toronto on its own turf, Baltimore has worked its way back into a tie with the Blue Jays for the first wild-card spot in the AL.

With the Detroit Tigers lurking dangerously close behind both teams, the pressure will be on the Blue Jays to take care of business over their final three games in Boston so as to not drop entirely out of the playoff picture.

“The team mentality has never changed…not once,” said Toronto starting pitcher Marcus Stroman. “So we’re fine, we’re fine.

“We’ll take the same mentality, the same confidence into Boston and hopefully we’ll go in there and get some wins. It was the same exact confidence we had going down 0-2 to Texas last year.”

In the season’s most critical outing, Toronto’s so-called big bats were like putty against Ubaldo Jimenez, the Baltimore starter who put on a big-time show.

Jimenez allowed just one Toronto hit over 62/3 innings to help smother the Blue Jays in a game in which their big mashers – Josh Donaldson, Edwin Encarnacion and Jose Bautista – went a combined 1-for-10.

Perhaps it might help that the Blue Jays are finishing on the road. September has been a roller coaster of both good and bad for the team, and home has not always been where the heart is. As the long season has played out, tensions between some of the Blue Jays and the growing media contingent following the team has started to fester. One reporter exchanged angry words with Toronto closer Roberto Osuna before Wednesday’s game after Osuna sidestepped several entreaties for an interview.

And the nuttiness reached a zenith after somebody pinned up pictures of two Toronto sports columnists in a private player area off the clubhouse with a warning not to grant them interviews if approached.

While not condoning any of the actions, Toronto manager John Gibbons said it is a tough stretch of the season for his players, both emotionally and physically. But he said he thinks his veteran team, the oldest in the majors, is holding up just fine to pressure.

“Good for the most part,” Gibbons said before Thursday’s game. “There’s definitely frustration, there’s going to be. That’s the game, you’re at it every day. But I think that’s always been one of the pluses of this group, things don’t stick with them.”

After missing the past two games nursing a sore left shoulder, Toronto’s Devon Travis was back in the starting lineup at second base.

Things looked promising early for Toronto when leadoff hitter Ezequiel Carrera extended his hitting streak to six games when he singled off Jimenez in the first inning. Carrera, who would be the only Toronto batter to collect a hit of Jimenez, would make his way around to third, where he was left stranded.

The Blue Jays sent the indefatigable Marcus Stroman to the mound to counter Jimenez and Stroman battled, on the hook for four of the Baltimore runs off nine hits through seven-plus innings.

But it was the offence, not the pitching, that sunk Toronto. The Orioles outhit the Jays 9-3.

J.J. Hardy got things going for the Orioles, stroking a sinking liner to the gap in right-centre in the third inning that Toronto outfielder Michael Saunders loped in for only to see the ball skip past him for a double.

Hardy moved to third on a groundout, then tagged and scored on a sacrifice fly launched to centre by Manny Machado.

Baltimore cashed in again in the fourth, after Donaldson made a poor relay to second base that botched what would have been an inning-ending double play.

Chris Davis was able to score from third base on the play to make it 2-0.

Baltimore tagged on another run in the seventh and struck again in the eighth where Toronto’s Kevin Pillar acted nonchalant on a hit by Mark Trumbo, who was able to pull into second base as a result.

And when Matt Wieters singled to score Trumbo with Baltimore’s final run, the boos of discontent from the Blue Jays faithful began to ring out from the stands.

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