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Alek Manoah of the Toronto Blue Jays pitches to the Tampa Bay Rays in the first inning during their MLB game at the Rogers Centre on April 16 in Toronto.Mark Blinch/Getty Images

The season still hasn’t clicked for Alek Manoah.

The Toronto Blue Jays right-hander had a phenomenal sophomore season last year, finishing with a 2.24 earned-run average and third in American League Cy Young Award voting. But in 2023, outside of one outing, Manoah has yet to hit his stride.

That continued in the Blue Jays’ 8-1 loss to the Tampa Bay Rays on Sunday at the Rogers Centre, where Manoah went 4 2/3 innings and gave up seven runs in an unsteady start.

The loss spoiled the Jays’ hopes of sweeping the Rays, who entered the weekend series as the hottest team in the majors. Tampa Bay started the season on a 13-game winning streak, tying the record for the best start to a season in the modern era, before Toronto beat Tampa on Friday and Saturday.

On Sunday, Manoah struggled from the moment he stepped on the mound. His first pitch sailed into first baseman Yandy Diaz’s back. He walked the next batter, gave up a single, then walked designated hitter Wander Franco with the bases loaded to force in a run, all without recording an out.

“They kicked my butt,” Manoah said. “I’m here right now and I’m going to keep fighting my way out. That’s all I know how to do and that’s what this team needs from me.”

Sunday’s start was the latest in a string of rough outings for the 25-year-old. Manoah gave up five runs and didn’t finish the fourth inning on opening day in St. Louis, then shut down the Kansas City Royals with seven runless innings on April 5.

Then after a three-run, five-walk start in the home opener on April 11, Manoah gave up the most runs of his major-league career on Sunday and tied his career high in hits allowed.

“I’m not going back to the drawing board. I felt good out there,” Manoah said, explaining that he had some sharp pitches and good velocity, despite missing his location in a few at-bats.

Manoah pitched around a handful of baserunners in the middle innings, then struck out the first two batters in the fifth, but the inning quickly fell apart. Centre fielder Josh Lowe brought in a run with a double and, two batters later, catcher Christian Bethancourt delivered the death blow.

His three-run homer gave the Rays a 7-1 lead and knocked Manoah out of the game one batter later.

Manoah shot through the minor leagues and dominated the majors from the moment he arrived. Now he’s encountered a road block.

“It’s going to happen at any point in time, I think in anybody’s career,” Jays manager John Schneider said. “You got all the confidence in the world in that dude to really dig down, dig deep. He’s one of the best competitors in the game. You go through it, you learn from it, you get better.”

Offensively, the Blue Jays were up against lefty Shane McClanahan, who gave up three runs total in his first three starts of the season, all of which the Rays won. In 2022, he used his fastball, second-fastest among American League starters, and effective changeup to post a 2.54 ERA.

Toronto’s limited offence came in its first three at-bats. Designated hitter George Springer walked, then shortstop Bo Bichette hit a single. First baseman Vladimir Guerrero Jr. hit another single to drive Springer in.

McClanahan proceeded to shut Toronto down. He retired the next 11 batters in order and allowed only two more hits before leaving the game at the end of the sixth.

The one-run performance was only Toronto’s third time in 16 games scoring fewer than two runs. Entering Sunday, the Blue Jays led the majors with a team batting average of .282.

“Our approach early was good,” Schneider said. “[McClanahan] had a really good mix going. It was starting soft then finishing with a fastball.”

With their first home stand of the season now finished, the Blue Jays will travel to face the reigning World Series champion Houston Astros on Monday evening. Opening the series is righty Kevin Gausman, who has been Toronto’s most reliable starter this season by a wide margin – he’s allowed just three runs and three walks while striking out 25.

While the Astros have started the year slowly at 7-8, Schneider said he isn’t putting stock into their early season results.

Manoah won’t start again until Toronto’s series against the New York Yankees over the weekend. He’ll have time to address what hasn’t been working.

“I just need to go out there and start throwing some punches instead of wearing them,” Manoah said.

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