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Gaston hasn't had much to work with lately Add to ...

Good grief. This can't be what it was like toward the end of Cito Gaston's first stint with the Toronto Blue Jays, can it? A nine-game losing string and all of a sudden Gaston's gone from a renaissance man to some kind of baseball Luddite? For those of us who were otherwise occupied with life, is this what we missed when it all went pear-shaped?

People aren't just jumping off the Blue Jays' bandwagon. They're flipping the bird to the driver because he won't change the seating configuration. He won't move Vernon Wells or Alex Rios in the order or sit their sorry, overpaid, underachieving, multiyear butts. It's amazing how quickly a manager becomes less of a genius when the setup guy has an off day. That's the setup guy he's asking to fill in for his $10-million-a-year closer who can't throw the ball at a pane of glass (let alone break it). Hell, that wouldn't have happened if Cito were managing the team. Oh ... wait.

Fans hear Gaston say it doesn't matter where you stick a slumping hitter because he still comes up with men on base and still makes outs, and besides, you're only really "hitting fourth" the first time you come to the plate. And the fans yell, "Prove it!"

Where 10 days ago fans saw steely, steady resolve, some of them now see stubbornness.

And here come the Boston Red Sox for a three-game series beginning tonight at the Rogers Centre with a manager, Terry Francona, who has both benched (for a weekend) and now demoted his own slumping slugger, David Ortiz. It was Gaston who, at the start of the previous series against the Red Sox this month, said he didn't see much percentage in giving a guy a weekend off. He wasn't ripping Francona. He was asked for an opinion. He gave an opinion, and then his team lost nine games consecutively, hitting a combined .185 with runners in scoring position.

In the eight games since they were beaten 2-1 by Red Sox knuckleball pitcher Tim Wakefield (tonight's starter, wouldn't you know it?), the middle of the Blue Jays' lineup - their third, fourth, fifth and sixth-place hitters - have hit a combined .225 with seven runs scored, five runs batted in and 10 extra-base hits, all of them doubles. Since that game, the Blue Jays have been outscored 39-12.

It's not just Rios and Wells who haven't done much. Neither No. 5 hitter Adam Lind (4-for-31, two doubles) nor No. 6 hitter Scott Rolen (5-for-23, three doubles) have had an impact. At 9-for-54 (.167), those two have been worse than Wells and Rios.

That's not to absolve Rios, the No. 3 hitter, or cleanup man Wells. Goodness knows that with the offence generated by leadoff hitter Marco Scutaro and No. 2 hitter Aaron Hill, more should be expected from the next two batters in the lineup. But it gets to the root of Gaston's argument: Who would replace Rios or Wells? Hill? That would be out-and-out panic, to remove the most consistent hitter in the lineup from his comfort zone.

Francona sat Ortiz because Jason Bay was hitting out of his mind. Bay has cooled down - he was given the day off in yesterday's 3-1 win over the Minnesota Twins - but Francona still felt comfortable moving Ortiz down to the sixth spot from the third spot Tuesday because Kevin Youkilis had returned from the 15-day disabled list. Youkilis has gone 10-for-31 with nine RBIs in his nine games back. J.D. Drew has gone 0-for-9 in the third hole since Ortiz was moved down, but when he replaced Big Papi in that spot last June, he hit .337 with 12 homers and 27 RBIs in 12 games. So there's a been-there, done-that factor at work. Gaston? Go ahead ... you find his Youkilis in this lineup. Or Drew.

And the Red Sox front office isn't sitting around, either. With Clay Buchholz in the minors and John Smoltz rehabilitating, the Red Sox might make pitcher Brad Penny available as trade bait and they've been linked with outfielder Jeff Francoeur of the Atlanta Braves. The Blue Jays do not have the Red Sox' payroll flexibility, and, as cannot be mentioned enough, the Blue Jays still need to figure out how they're going to keep Roy Halladay.

Are the Red Sox better than the Blue Jays? Yeah, apparently. And one thing I do know: The Red Sox are better equipped to handle the twists and turns of a long season. They can play catch-up or leader with equal aplomb. They have players who've done that before. Nobody on the Blue Jays has that much experience. If only Cito were managing.

jblair@globeandmail.com

****

ON DECK

NOTES Casey Janssen makes his second start of the year for the Toronto Blue Jays tonight. He was decent in his first outing, against the Atlanta Braves, but they had just two swinging strikes against him in 78 pitches, one of which was by Derek Lowe, the starting pitcher. Janssen didn't strike out a batter against a poor offensive team. ... Aaron Hill's home run in the 11th inning on Wednesday ended a stretch of 77 innings without a home run for the Jays. UP NEXT Tonight, v. Boston Red Sox, at Rogers Centre in Toronto, 7:07 p.m. EDT.

PROBABLE STARTERS RHP Casey Janssen (0-1, 4.50) v. RHP Tim Wakefield (6-2, 3.99).

TV Rogers Sportsnet

Jeff Blair

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