When the ninth inning rolled around Friday night, Casey Janssen was presented with a straightforward chance to record his 19 save and nip the inconsistency that has plagued him since he fell ill during Major League Baseball's all-star break.
Toronto Blue Jays starter R.A. Dickey and relievers Dustin McGowan and Brett Cecil kept a lid on the Detroit Tigers through eight innings and the rest of the team bunted and scrapped for a 4-2 lead with much of the power-hitting on the disabled list. All the Jays' closer had to do was get the bottom three hitters in the Tigers' lineup out.
But Janssen put a torch to the script, handing No. 7 batter Alex Avila a double and then having Nick Castellanos and Eugenio Suarez blast back-to-back home runs off him to turn that lead into a 5-4 Tigers win in the American League series opener. With the Blue Jays having lost two out of three to the AL East Division leaders, the Baltimore Orioles, already this week and facing two tough series against the Tigers and Seattle Mariners, the blown win had an extra bite.
"This one stung a little bit," Janssen said. "They got me tonight."
Dickey, who had to watch what should have been his 10 win go up in smoke, was not about kick his fellow pitcher.
"You feel for Casey. I've been out there and done the same thing. It hurts," Dickey said. "We're teammates and we're going to pick each other up. I can certainly emphasize with his pain. It's no time to pout, that's for sure."
While it was just Janssen's third blown save of the season, it was yet another indication his season remains in a downward spiral following the all-star break last month. He contracted either food poisoning or some sort of bug in the Dominican Republic, the team isn't sure which, and has not been consistent since.
Janssen said he felt sharp when he came in Friday night but the bottom of the Tigers lineup made it look like batting practice. You know it's a bad night when the No. 9 hitter (Suarez) drills one over the centre-field fence.
"Yeah, I haven't pitched at great," Janssen said. "Sometimes things can be streaky. Right now it doesn't seem like it's streaking in the right direction for me. I've just got to continue to work, execute pitches.
"The hitters might be adjusting to me. It's my turn to adjust to them. I'm not quitting and we got a long ways to go."
The Tigers supplied a little drama of their own in the bottom of the ninth when reliever Joe Nathan, no stranger to coughing up a lead himself, followed Janssen's lead. He issued consecutive walks to Colby Rasmus and pinch-hitter Juan Francisco to load the bases with two outs but outfielder Rajai Davis made a nice sliding catch on a fly ball from Josh Thole to preserve the win.
Until Janssen put in an appearance, everything was going according to the script for the Blue Jays. With power hitters Edwin Encarnacion, Brett Lawrie and Adam Lind on the disabled list, Blue Jays manager John Gibbons acknowledged over the last couple of days he might need to forget the long ball and pull out all of his small ball tricks to keep the Orioles in sight in the AL East race.
But, Gibbons cautioned his listeners a few hours before Friday's game, "the opportunity's got to present itself to do something."
In the second inning, Jays third baseman Munenori Kawasaki presented that opportunity. He started off what turned out to be Toronto's biggest inning with a double off Tigers' starter Anibal Sanchez. Actually, make that a double off Tigers left fielder J.D. Martinez, who let the ball bounce out of his glove. Martinez was one of a few Tigers who had miserable nights in the field.
Catcher Josh Thole moved Kawasaki to third with a sacrifice bunt and then Gibbons, madly working all the levers, called for a squeeze play. Second baseman Ryan Goins executed it perfectly, laying a bunt down that Sanchez bobbled to score Kawasaki. Three consecutive singles followed, scoring Goins and shortstop Jose Reyes and the Blue Jays departed the inning with three runs, the bounty they thought needed to nail down a win in front of a crowd of 36,237 at the Rogers Centre.
"You look at our personnel, if everything lines up and you've got a chance to bunt some guys over maybe hit and run, something like that, you can do that knowing your own personnel," Gibbons said.
Sanchez (8-6) was forced out of the game in the fifth inning with two outs with a pectoral muscle strain. He swung his right arm around several times, tried a practice pitch and then walked to the dugout as left-hander Blaine Hardy took over. While Sanchez had his struggles, giving up 10 hits and four earned runs over four and two-thirds innings, his teammates did him no favours with their sloppy defence.
Melky Cabrera, who had to leave Thursday's game after being hit by a pitch, pronounced his sore right elbow fit to play and Gibbons said that "was all I needed to hear," and he started the game in left field for the Blue Jays. The elbow was protected with a pad but it did not seem to bother Cabrera, as he singled in one of the Jays' runs in their big second inning.
Down on the farm, Adam Lind took the day off in his rehabilitation assignment in the Gulf Coast League. He is still expected to return Monday from a month-long absence due to a broken foot but experienced some tightness in his back during a game Thursday. Gibbons said the setback was considered minor.