Twenty games into the season, as the starting pitching shows signs of consistency, the Blue Jays team hitting slump persists.
With a 2-1 loss to the Orioles at a chilly Camden Yards on Monday, Toronto's record dropped to 8-12, in the first of a seven-game road trip to Baltimore and New York.
Entering Monday's American League games, the Jays ranked in the bottom third of the league for batting average, on-base percentage, hits, on-base plus slugging percentage (OPS) and batting with runners in scoring position (.200). Against the previously struggling Baltimore starter Chris Tillman and a pair of relievers, they threatened to score twice in the game while mustering a total of four hits.
For the 14th time, the opponent scored the first run. The Jays came back to tie in the seventh and in the Orioles ninth, lefty Aaron Loup hit the first batter of the inning, Chris Davis. With two out, first baseman Edwin Encarnacion couldn't dig out a low throw from shortstop Munenori Kawasaki following a routine grounder by No. 9 hitter Alexi Casilla, and Davis scored the winning run as leadoff hitter Nick Markakis sliced an 0-2, low-and-away fastball down the left-field line.
"I thought I had him right where I wanted him, and all I can do is tip my hat to him," Loup said.
Starter J.A. Happ went six-plus innings, allowing a run on four hits and striking out six. Steve Delabar pitched two hitless innings, getting a double play after Happ had issued a leadoff walk in the seventh, before Loup entered in the ninth.
"It's been a tough go," Happ said. "We have to keep the energy up. Sooner or later the balls will start falling in."
The rotation, a top priority of GM Alex Anthopolous during the offseason, had a rough start to the season, partly due to mental and physical defensive miscues. Munenori's error was the club's 12, and only three AL teams had committed more errors before Monday's games. Still, Happ's outing on Monday made seven quality starts (six innings pitched, three runs or fewer) in the last 10 outings.
Meantime, the team's batting average dropped to .227 with the 3-4 hitters in the lineup, Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion, coincidentally on the Mendoza Line simultaneously, each hitting .200.
"I think you're seeing a case where guys are pressing, swinging at the first pitch when they wouldn't normally do that," said veteran infielder Mark DeRosa. "They're trying to hit a three-run home run with nobody on base. It has been a case where expectations were high and we got off to a rough start. Everyone wants to end the ... I guess you would say, the doldrums, with one swing of the bat."
With Lawrie seven games into his return to third base and Bautista restored to right field, manager John Gibbons expressed confidence before the game that the team will start hitting to the level of its talent.
"In a lot of [statistical] categories we're down right now, but that's going to change," he said. "Everything is magnified right now."
Bautista has missed seven games with injuries, while Encarnacion played through a sore finger injured during the World Baseball Classic. He'd endured an 0-for-19 streak earlier in the month, and had been in another rut, 0-for-16, until collecting the Jays third hit of the night against Tillman, with one out in the seventh and coming around to score the tying run.
"If I don't feel good at the plate it's different, but I feel good," said Encarnacion, who's had more than his share of tough luck with hard-hit balls going right at defenders.
The Jays also ranked 10th out of 15 clubs for drawing walks, and with 152 strikeouts entering Monday's game – now with 158, after six on Monday -- only three teams had whiffed more. The Jays as a team were seeing an average of 3.92 pitches per plate appearance, compelling Gibbons to speak with the hitters about discipline at the plate. He has witnessed too few of the at-bats such as Colby Rasmus turned in Monday, with two out in the seventh, working a 3-2 count before hitting a game tying single through the hole between first and second base.
"We are a free swinging team – for a lot of the guys, that's what they are, and what they have always been," he said. "But we are chasing too many balls out of the strike zone. We're telling them, get a pitch you want to hit."
While Gibbons is primarily concerned about the hitters getting themselves in a hole by flailing early in the count, nonetheless, a case in point occurred after Rasmus's single: Lawrie drew his first walk of the season to load the bases but Bonifacio chased a high 2-2 fastball from sidearm reliever Darren O'Day to end the inning.
Bonifacio (.185) hit ninth in the order as Gibbons went with Kawasaki (0-for-3, .231) in the leadoff slot. Since Jose Reyes was injured on April 12, he's also used Rajai Davis and Bonifacio in the slot. Davis was most successful but with Bautista in right and Adam Lind in the DH slot, Davis was on the bench Monday.