When shortstop Jose Reyes went down with an ankle injury on April 12, the Blue Jays expedited Brett Lawrie’s return from Florida where he’d been rehabilitating a muscle strain in his abdomen.
Lawrie was injured March 6 while playing with Team Canada in advance of the World Baseball Classic, and played all of two games with Single-A Dunedin before returning on Tuesday. While pitchers have exploited his eagerness at the plate this week – 19 at-bats, two hits -- Lawrie had strengthened the infield defence, until Saturday.
In front of a capacity crowd at the Rogers Centre, Vernon Wells and Francisco Cervelli started the 11th inning for the Yankees with singles against relief pitcher Aaron Loup, bringing Ichiro Suzuki to the plate in an obvious bunt situation. As Suzuki placed the bunt toward the third base side, Loup and Lawrie charged. Lawrie should have covered the bag, instead he got back-pedalling, his absence from a daily drill at spring training perhaps evident on the play.
When Loup automatically wheeled and threw for the attempted force-out, the ball sailed into left field, enabling both runners to score for a 5-3 Blue Jays loss.“I just couldn’t get back to the bag in time and by the time I turned around, the ball was already on me,” Lawrie said.
Loup got the error, the second charged to the team in the game, but that count could easily have been four. This came a day after a throw from centre fielder Colby Rasmus skipped away from catcher J.P. Arencibia on Friday, with a cutoff man nowhere to be found, also costing two runs.
“No doubt, when you screw up the fundamentals, you’re not supposed to win,” manager John Gibbons said, adding: “Let’s face it, we haven’t played good enough baseball to win.”
The Blue Jays sold 46,095 tickets for the game, the sixth crowd of at least 40,000 to date. The team has won one, lost five of those games for a 7-11 record overall, while the Yankees are 10-6.
Toronto’s rotation started slowly through the first homestand and a frigid trip to Detroit, however, impotent hitting has anchored the team. Since leadoff hitter Jose Reyes (.395) was injured in Kansas City on April 12, the rotation has recorded six quality starts (six innings or more, three runs or fewer) in eight outings, but in those eight games the Jays have scored a total of 21 runs, or 2.4 per game. With seven hits Saturday, they’ve managed a total of 52 in the same span, or an average of 6.5.
With Wells’ second inning solo homer off starter Mark Buehrle, Toronto’s opponents have scored first in 13 of the 18 games played, and the Blue Jays record is 3-10 in those contests. The Jays are hitting .225 as a team, managing just seven hits on Satruday.
While much is being made of the failure to get timely hitting, the fact is, precious few base runners have been in position to score. Paradoxically, as of Saturday afternoon, the Jays ranked fourth-best among Major League teams for fewest runners left in scoring position per game, at 2.76.
They did come through in the clutch once Saturday, down 3-0 in the eighth. After Rasmus singled, Yankees manager Joe Girardi took out starter Hiroki Karuda (7 and 1/3 innings, three hits, one run). Pinch hitter Adam Lind drew a one-out walk, and Rajai Davis drove in a run with a single before Melky Cabrera brought in two more with another base hit. Jose Bautista drew a walk after complaining that the prior pitch had been a ball too, but Edwin Encarnacion struck out with the bases loaded. Their 3-4-5-6 hitters (Bautista, Encarnacion, Arencibia, Lawrie) went a combined 1-for-18 on Saturday as Yankee hitters in the same slots went 7-for-19, with a homer and three RBIs.
It’s one thing to be aggressive, another to flail randomly, especially as pitchers tease with off-speed offerings outside the strike zone. On Friday night, deep in the hole during a game lost 9-4 to the Yankees, the hitters at one point recorded four outs on four pitches. In the 10 inning game on Saturday, Davis and Cabrera had a chance to repeat the eighth inning heroics with a runner on second and one out, but reliever Shawn Kelley needed only three pitches to get two outs. Davis popped up, Cabrera grounded out.
In his fourth outing, Buehrle flashed his best stuff to date and needed it to dig out of trouble caused by poor defence behind him.
Trailing 1-0 after allowing the homer to Wells on a 3-2 changeup in the second inning, he had to get three extra outs in the fourth, arguably, after Robinson Cano led off with a single. With one out, Buehrle induced Wells to hit a grounder to shortstop Munenori Kawasaki but Izturis dropped his relay throw for the team's first error, spoiling a possible double play.
As a matter of routine, Buehrle accepts that a pitcher’s responsibility is to pick up the defence in such situations. He struck out Cervelli for the second out to bring up Suzuki, who had 21 hits in 48 career at-bats against him, entering the game. Suzuki’s grounder deflected off first baseman Edwin Encarnacion to Izturis, whose throw forced the covering Buehrle to come off the bag and rotate against his body’s momentum for a backhanded catch. It was ruled a hit. A four-time Gold Glove winner, Buehrle saved a run with that play, then got Eduardo Nunez to pop up to end the inning.
“I felt like I made some quality pitches – the line [seven innings, eight hits, three runs] doesn’t dictate how I threw today, but that’s part of the game,” he said.
Next inning, Jayson Nix started with a single and Brett Gardner doubled, putting runners at second and third with none out. Buehrle struck out Ben Francisco and walked Cano intentionally to load the bases. That’s when Youkilis, who’d struck out chasing pitches in his two prior at-bats, hit a knuckleballing liner that Lawrie misjudged, jumping when a jump wasn’t required to make the catch. The ball deflected off the thumb of his glove into left field to bring in two runs, for the 3-0 lead.
Buehrle, with two runs across instead of none, with one out instead of at least two, got Cervelli to ground into an ending double play. His grit in the two innings kept the game close, enabling the Blue Jays eighth-inning comeback. He last recorded a victory against New York in 2004, and remains 1-8 lifetime.
The Jays had a chance to score in the first inning when Cabrera hit a one-out double but Bautista and Encarnacion grounded out and popped out respectively, and the crowd went numb.
Mariano Rivera closed out the Jays for his fifth save in his 1,057 appearance, one shy of tying former Jay Mike Timlin for seventh place on the all-time list for games pitched.