It’s not really possible for Joe Maddon’s hair to turn greyer, is it?
It looked like déjà vu all over again for an instant at Rogers Centre on Tuesday night, with the Tampa Bay Rays trying to protect a lead against the Blue Jays.
At Tropicana Field two weeks ago, the Blue Jays performed comeback acts to win the first two games of a four-game set - most dramatically in the first game as J.P. Arencibia hit a game winning home run on Fernando Rodney’s 2-2 pitch with two out in the ninth to cap a seven-run comeback.
On Tuesday, ahead three runs in the eighth inning on Tuesday and with two runners aboard, the Rays went to an exaggerated infield shift with Jose Bautista at bat, placing second baseman Roberts to the third-base side of the bag. Bautista hit a two-strike line drive right where Roberts would normally play, for a RBI single to close the gap to 4-2.
Maddon prefers to restrict Rodney to the ninth inning, but in the Tropicana Field game he’d gone to his closer with one out in the eighth inning. Tuesday, once again Rodney entered the game with one out in the eighth only this time, Arencibia would be the first batter he faced.
The Jays had loaded the bases after Bautista’s RBI when Roberts booted a grounder, brining on Rodney. This time, Arencibia went after Rodney’s first pitch and hit a grounder to Roberts, who turned it into a critical inning ending double play.
The Jays scored once more in the ninth before Rodney struck out Melky Cabrera to end the game for a 4-3 win, before a Rays-like crowd of 15,802. With their fifth victory in the last six road games, the Rays remain tied for third with Baltimore, six games ahead of the last-place Blue Jays in the AL East.
The third and final game of the series is scheduled for Wednesday afternoon at 4:37 p.m., and the Orioles follow the Rays into the Rogers Centre for a four-game series.
Yet one more time, Toronto manager John Gibbons had talked before the game about the importance of plate discipline, but afterwards he endorsed Arencibia’s decision to go after the first pitch. Arencibia went into a meeting with Gibbons later, and wasn’t available for comment.
“No problem right then,” Gibbons said, reflecting on Arencibia’s grounder. “He got a strike, hit it right at the guy. That at-bat is not one to judge [discipline] by. We were chasing out of the zone a lot tonight.”
Alex Cobb (5-2) held the lineup to three hits and a Colby Rasmus solo homer in 6-1/3 innings. To illustrate Gibbons’ point, Brett Lawrie started the ninth against Rodney with an eight-pitch at-bat, four changeups and four fastballs. The pitch tracker on the Rogers Sportsnet telecast indicated that none of the eight pitches was in the strike zone, and Lawrie swung at six of them.
Rasmus doubled and scored in the ninth inning and thereafter the Jays had the tying run on first base, but umpire Dale Scott ended the game with a generous called third strike, ironically on arguably Toronto’s most disciplined hitter, Melky Cabrera.
The Jays kept the stadium roof closed on Tuesday, and the ball was soaring in the dead air. In the second inning, Evan Longoria doubled and scored the first Rays run against Ramon Ortiz (1-2), ahead of Johnson’s homer. In the third, he singled and scored after Desmond Jennings had led off the inning with a homer, for a 4-1 lead. Longoria has 13 hits against the Blue Jays in six games.
Gibbons lifted Ortiz after 2-1/3 innings. Ortiz is the scheduled starter on Sunday against the Orioles, as Josh Johnson needs two more rehab starts before returning from his triceps strain. However, the Jays haven’t announced their starting pitcher for Friday, so Ortiz’s situation may come under review.
“He didn’t have it,” Gibbons said. “His command was off, and that’s something he needs.”
Tampa Bay shortstop Yunel Escobar made the third of three standout defensive plays by the Rays, at the first critical juncture of the game. Down three runs in the sixth inning, the Jays had two runners aboard -- Bautista with a single, Edwin Encarnacion with a walk – with two out and their hottest hitter at the plate, in Adam Lind. The Rays shifted the infield toward right field, yet Lind’s sharply hit grounder passed Cobb and appeared to be going up the middle for an RBI single. Escobar though, made a headlong dive well behind second base and a strong throw to first to retire the slow-footed runner.
Escobar, Johnson’s double-play partner in Toronto last year, was booed on Monday as are many former Jays upon returning to Toronto, though his greeting may have been sourced in the crowd’s disapproval for his late-season action in 2012 – inscribing a gay slur in his eye-black. He incited the crowd in the ninth inning that day with an exaggerated ‘safe’ sign after hitting a two-out homer against Casey Janssen in a Toronto victory.
After that game Maddon said he would talk with Escobar and pledged the antics wouldn’t be seen again. On Tuesday he changed his stance, saying Escobar had expressed himself that way before.