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Red Sox outfielder Jackie Bradley Jr. beats the the throw to Blue Jays catcher Dioner Navarro during Friday’s game. (John E. Sokolowski/USA Today Sports)
Red Sox outfielder Jackie Bradley Jr. beats the the throw to Blue Jays catcher Dioner Navarro during Friday’s game. (John E. Sokolowski/USA Today Sports)

BASEBALL

Kelly: Slump has Jays players on edge Add to ...

Ahead of Friday night’s opener with the Red Sox, Josh Donaldson delivered a gentle warning to an unnamed assortment of his teammates.

It was coded and subtle. No names were named.

After the error-ridden, painful-to-watch 13-3 loss that followed, he may want to expand on those thoughts. Maybe print them in a small edition of chapbooks and lay one on every seat in the locker room. He can give Melvin Upton, Jr. a stack of them.

Because though the Jays are still very much in this thing (now two games back in a division they led by two last week), they aren’t playing that way. They’ve now lost six of their last seven, a few of them gruesomely.

Friday night’s effort was as poorly prepared as this club has looked when it mattered in more than a year. And every day it matters a little bit more.

Donaldson’s quiet pre-game caution started with presentation. Most guys find something better to do once the press enters the clubhouse. The Jays’ best player planted himself at his seat and waited to be approached. In baseball media-relations terms, this is a little like holding up a sign that reads, ‘I would like to make a statement’.

There was no evident frustration. He maintained his usual placid drawl. But the words did not quite match the relaxed tone.

“It can be a little more difficult for some people when you’re playing a team that’s not in the (playoff) race,” Donaldson said. “As a professional, you should approach every day the same. I feel like, for the most part, we do that.”

Have you talked to any of your teammates (about the recent slide)?

“Honestly, I think a lot of guys go about their business in the right way … I feel like a lot of guys are doing their job.”

Someone noted the ‘get-it-done’ speech.

“You haven’t really heard me say anything like that this year because there hasn’t been a need to. For the most part, we do a good job as a team.”

The default of established big leaguers is to fall back on the ‘Everybody’s awesome and I love them all like brothers’ line when things begin to wobble a bit. Donaldson’s spiel is a notable deviation.

There are a lot of “most guys,” “a lot of guys” and “most part” qualifiers in those answers. The inference is that at least a few people aren’t doing their jobs to his satisfaction.

At that point, it was hard to say whom he meant. There were many small moments of inattention and lack of care adding up to five losses in six against Tampa Bay and New York.

After Friday’s feeble restart display, the list of suspects has grown to everybody, including Donaldson.

Where should we start?

How about Michael Saunders and Kevin Pillar getting repeatedly crossed up in right field? An ugly combined effort led to the first Boston run of the game.

Or starter Marco Estrada, who has gone from ‘Maybe his back is wonky’ to ‘His back better be wonky because that’s the only excuse for the way he’s pitching’. Neither the likelihood of the outcome nor Estrada lasted three innings. It’s beginning to feel like his season ERA ticks up a quarter-run with each outing.

Nobody distinguished themselves with a bat, and Donaldson least of all. He’s 0-for-16 over the last five games.

It’s obviously a very humbling game,” Estrada said afterward. “That’s what’s happening to all of us right now.”

That’s a reasonable thing to say. Fans won’t want to hear it. What they want most in times of trouble is a goat.

But in times of trouble, what nervous fans want most of all is a goat. Thoughtfully, Upton brought his horns.

Things were going merrily sideways in the third inning when a fly ball was hit straight at him in shallow-ish left field. Boston’s best runner, Mookie Betts, was standing on third.

Upton probably wouldn’t have caught Betts after he’d tagged. But he should still have caught the ball. As it hit the heel of his glove and skittered away, you heard something at the Rogers Centre we’d almost forgotten – rage.

Poor Upton had to stand there and take it a while.

An inning later, he bobbled a ball as it caromed off the wall. Boston’s Brock Holt would probably have made second in any case, but they didn’t choose to see it that way in the stands. By this point, the boos had become general and begun to spread.

They booed Estrada. They booed reliever Danny Barnes and then they booed another reliever, Scott Feldman. They booed Upton -- when he came to bat -- then cheered him derisively whenever he made a routine defensive play.

Most hurtful of all, more than a few of them cheered Boston pensioner David Ortiz when he hit a seventh-inning double.

For a good week, Toronto has been looking for a head upon which to lay this swoon. Donaldson tried to keep it cordial. Having seen how well that strategy worked, the fans decided to make it a little more personal.

Generally speaking, jeering your own team is a dubious performance-enhancement technique. The players expect to get it in the neck every once in a while, but if it becomes regular they turn surly.

This was the cleverness of Donaldson’s pre-game anti-pep talk – by spreading around the blame he theoretically got everyone in under his ‘try to be better’ umbrella, without embarrassing anybody in particular.

At least, it seemed that way. By the time people began to leave after the seventh inning, it appeared a bit too clever.

Because we now approaching panic stations. Manager John Gibbons has called this current run a “little lull.” It doesn’t seem little any more.

Whether its nerves, a lack of preparation or a general letdown hardly matters. The Jays have a day or two to turn this thing around. If they can’t, their sprint to the finish risks becoming a crawl.

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Follow on Twitter: @cathalkelly

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