The buzz was evident outside the Blue Jays clubhouse when the starting lineup was posted on the wall – and Josh Donaldson's name was not present.
"What's wrong with JD?" came the cry as several industrious reporters immediately decamped in the vicinity of Donaldson's locker to try to find out the reason behind this latest development.
It was a fruitless venture, as the American League's reigning most valuable player is proving far more adept at dodging nosy reporters these days than he is at tattooing baseballs during a hectic pennant race.
It was clear Donaldson did not intend to speak on his own behalf about why he was not in the starting lineup Monday night for the series-opener against the Tampa Bay Rays at Rogers Centre.
A career-worst seven-game hitless streak – 0-for-23 for those of you keeping track – can have that affect on an athlete who plies his trade as fastidiously as Donaldson does. The third baseman, when he finally showed, made his reticence very clear to the motley crew still staking out his seat.
"Not today, dog," Donaldson proclaimed, suggesting he might make some time for an interrogation or two on Tuesday.
So it was left up to Toronto manager John Gibbons to explain the absence of his star pupil.
"He's beat up, his body's banged up," Gibbons said. "Figured give him a day, let him rest up."
The Blue Jays, who had lost five of their past six heading into Monday's game, received a clutch pinch-hit home run by Ezequiel Carrera in the eighth inning to tally a 3-2 win over the Rays. Carrera led off the inning in place of Darwin Barney to face Brad Boxberger, the new Tampa Bay pitcher, and he laced the first pitch he saw over the wall in left to break up a 2-2 tie.
Francisco Liriano, making his first start for Toronto since Aug. 26, was spot on, allowing two Tampa Bays runs off just three hits over 61/3 innings. Only trouble was, two of the hits were back-to-back home runs in the seventh by Evan Longoria and Brad Miller. That drew the Rays even after a two-run homer by Jose Bautista in the sixth had lifted Toronto in front 2-0.
Jason Grilli earned the win after a clean inning of work in the eighth, while Roberto Osuna came on in the ninth to record his 32nd save of the season.
It is easy to understand the frustrations a player as tightly wound as Donaldson might be experiencing at this late stage of the season. His uncharacteristic struggles have dovetailed with those of a Blue Jays team that recently tumbled out of first place in the AL East.
Now it is time to play some catch-up over the past 20 games or so, not an easy task when your best player is a bit battered and bruised and fighting the ball.
The AL's top performer in 2015, who has put up some pretty gaudy numbers again this season, really has no place to hide when he's struggling at the plate.
"I don't put too much stock in [Donaldson's slump] because he's been so good," Gibbons said before the game. "I think what happened, he's spoiled everybody around here and out in Oakland for a number of years. That's just the way it goes sometimes.
"One thing you know, though, other teams really focus on him and pitch him tough because he is so good. And it's pretty amazing he hasn't had more slumps. He's been that good."
Gibbons was saying that pitcher Aaron Sanchez is doing fine after complaining of a blister or some sort of a "hot spot" (take your pick) on the index finger of his right throwing hand that bothered him during Sunday's outing against Boston.
Nevertheless, in Toronto's continuing effort to try and limit
Sanchez's innings this season, Gibbons said that Sanchez probably wouldn't return to the mound until Sept. 21 in Seattle against the Mariners.
And R.A. Dickey, the rotation's forgotten man who last made a start Sept. 5 against the Yankees, is available to pitch out of the bullpen.
Gibbons said he expects Dickey's next start to come this Friday or Saturday when the Blue Jays are out west to play the Los Angeles Angels.
As for the team's recent struggles, Gibbons said he does not need to reinforce the magnitude of the situation to his players. "There's not one thing wrong with their frame of mind," Gibbons insisted. "One thing about the guys in the arena, they know their job is to just go out there and compete. And that's all they've ever done and that's why they get to this point."
At this stage of the season, Gibbons said it is the fans, not the players, who usually start to panic. "We can't do anything about that – other than win a couple of games," he said.