Colby Rasmus of the Toronto Blue Jays nonchalantly approached a grounder stroked into centre by Kevin Kiermaier in the fourth inning like a beer-league regular. The momentary brain cramp allowed the grateful Tampa Bay Rays’ batter to stretch a single into a double.
An inning later, Toronto infielders Danny Valencia, Steve Tolleson and Edwin Encarnacion all played a role in a botched double-play attempt and this time the outcome was more costly as the Rays tallied a run on the miscue.
For all the brave talk that the Blue Jays have been making off the field about seizing the moment heading into the most critical home stand of the rapidly fading 2014 season, on the field, their play continues to remain startlingly indifferent.
Hoping to inject a sense of hope into the hometown fans still pining for a miracle run to the playoffs, the Blue Jays instead spread little more than doom and gloom throughout Rogers Centre on Friday night.
The Rays (63-65) pounded Toronto (65-63) 8-0 in the opening game of a three-game weekend series played out before 28,506 customers who frequently vented their displeasure toward the home side that struggled both on the mound and at the plate.
“I thought overall we played a lousy game,” was the apt summary from John Gibbons, the Blue Jays manager.
The so-called vaunted Blue Jay offence was muzzled by a sublime effort by Drew Smyly, the left-handed Tampa starter who pitched a complete-game two-hitter to improve to 8-10 on the year.
The game was the first of a nine-game home stand for the Blue Jays, who are rapidly running out of time in their desire to make up lost ground over the final six weeks of the regular season and possibly nab a playoff spot.
And they had Marcus Stroman (7-5), who arguably has been their best starter since joining the rotation earlier in the season, on the mound.
But for the second straight outing, their cocksure rookie was rocked by the opposition, this time to the tune of six runs (five earned) off 10 hits over five-plus innings as the Blue Jays lost for the seventh time in their past nine outings.
The previous time we saw Stroman, he was being humbled by the White Sox in Chicago, failing to even get out of the first inning in what amounted to an 11-5 loss for the Blue Jays on Aug. 15.
After he was stoned for five runs off five hits in just two-thirds of an inning during his Chicago encounter, the Blue Jays brain trust gathered to dissect Stroman’s debacle amid concerns he might have been tipping his pitches to the opposition.
“They really didn’t come up with anything,” Toronto manager John Gibbons said before the Blue Jays took the field.
After being given a clean bill of health, the Blue Jays marched Stroman back out to the mound on Friday, fully anticipating a solid outing.
And the stakes could not have been higher.
The Blue Jays headed into the game tied for fifth place with the New York Yankees in the American League wild-card playoff race, four games back of the second wild-card berth, held down by the Detroit Tigers.
With now only 34 games left in the regular season, that is a lot of ground to make up, especially for a team with such schizophrenic tendencies as the Blue Jays.
From May 4 through June 6, nobody in baseball was hotter than the Jays, who surged to the top of the AL East after compiling a 25-7 record. Since then it has been mostly a downhill slide for the Blue Jays. They carted a 5-12 August record into the game against the Rays.
The Rays served notice early that they were not about to be pushovers as Evan Longoria knocked a first-pitch Stroman fastball leading off the second inning over the wall in left field to provide the Rays with a 1-0 lead.
The Rays tagged on another run in the fourth after Will Myers earned a lead-off walk and had worked his way to third when Kiermaier stroked his single-turned-double to Rasmus in centre that brought the score to 2-0.
The Rays added another run in the fifth and then exploded for five more in the sixth to make it a runaway.
“We couldn’t get anything going off Smyly,” Gibbons said. “And then when you fall behind like that it can suck the wind out of you. It shouldn’t but it does.
“I thought we’d come out there (Friday) with a little more energy. We didn’t have it. We made some mistakes, couldn’t turn the big double play, laid back on a couple balls, things like that.”