There is something about the first inning that does not sit right with Marco Estrada. He is not exactly sure what it is, but he can't seem to get out of them unscathed.
Heading into Tuesday night's affair against the Tampa Bay Rays at Rogers Centre, the start of games has been the scourge of Estrada's season. His earned-run average in opening frames this season sat at an unappetizing 7.62 through his first 13 starts. That's pretty significant when, over all, he has an ERA of 4.04.
"They may tinker with things, for sure," Toronto manager John Gibbons remarked before the game, when Estrada's slow starts were brought up. "Who knows why that happens?"
While Estrada was able to skirt the first inning on Tuesday night relatively unscathed, it was the fourth inning that proved his undoing, as he was knocked around for four runs in what would amount to a 8-1 Rays triumph.
It was a rather unsettling start to a five-game homestand for the Blue Jays, and especially Estrada – who was raked for a career high 12 hits, including home runs by Logan Morrison and Taylor Featherston. Corey Dickerson also homered for the Rays, off Aaron Loup in the ninth.
The 3.1 innings he worked represented a season low and marked the second time in his past three outings that Estrada has failed to pitch out of the fourth inning.
"It sucks," Estrada said of his continuing pitching woes. "I know I've been in a bit of a funk the last few outings. But I'm not worried about it. I feel pretty good out there.
"I know things are going to change for me."
The Blue Jays could not get anything going against rookie Tampa Bay starter Jacob Faria, who flummoxed the Toronto hitters in just his second career start, allowing six hits over 6.1 innings of work.
The contest was the first of a mini two-game set against the Rays. After that, the Blue Jays will welcome the Chicago White Sox to town for a more traditional three-game series, beginning on Friday night.
As hard as it is to imagine, given the horrible start the Blue Jays got off to, they entered Tuesday's game just 1.5-games out of the second wild-card spot in the American League East.
They are tightly bunched among a group of eight teams all within at least two games of the coveted playoff berth.
Although it is still early, don't think Gibbons doesn't know exactly where his group is sitting.
"We're well aware of that," Gibbons said before the game. "We dug that big hole in April, so I'm glad where we're at right now. It could have been a disaster; [but] guys came back.
"We're still waiting to combine everything – the good pitching, good defence, good offence – for a spurt, make a nice little run. We really haven't had that in a while."
For the fourth time in two weeks, the Blue Jays squandered an opportunity to reach the .500 level in the standings with a win. Gibbons realizes that is a hurdle the team will eventually have to clear if the Blue Jays' postseason aspirations are ever to materialize.
"You got to do it sooner or later … if you want to get anywhere," Gibbons remarked.
Estrada's first-inning blues has only been a recent trend.
In his first four starts, and six of his first seven, Estrada came out of the first innings unscathed.
But in his past six starts, he has only managed to blank the opposition on one occasion in the first inning, the low point being a four-run mauling by the New York Yankees on June 1.
Estrada came out of the first inning on Tuesday in fine fettle, only allowing a single by Dickerson, who would eventually be thrown out by Toronto catcher Russell Martin trying to steal third base.
But it was that third inning that leaped up and bit him.
Playing in just his third game of the season, Featherston collected his first hit, and it was a big one – a home-run blast to right field on a 3-2 count that began the Tampa Bay scoring spree.
The Rays pummelled Estrada with six hits in the inning, including a three-run home run off of Morrison's bat, his 18th of the season, which put Toronto in a deep hole, trailing 4-0.
Estrada would stick around to start the fourth, where he was again waylaid by one-out singles by Mallex Smith and then Dickerson. Gibbons had seen enough by then and came out to get Estrada, replacing him with Dominic Leone, who promptly served up a two-run double off the bat of Even Longoria that brought the score to 6-0, more than enough to tame the tepid Blue Jays.
Estrada's night – six runs off 12 hits, including two home runs – in just 3.1 innings lowered his record to 4-5.
Looking forward, the Blue Jays are anticipating the return this weekend of left-fielder Steve Pearce, out since the middle of last month with a right calf strain.
Second baseman Devon Travis underwent surgery this week to clean up loose cartilage in his right knee, but his return is still a ways off.