The door leading from the American League East basement was momentarily ajar on Thursday, but the Toronto Blue Jays could not climb out. In a position to escape last in the division and move into a fourth-place tie, the Jays needed a win to pull even with their AL East rival and opponent, the Baltimore Orioles, at Rogers Centre.
Baltimore spoiled those plans with runs in third and sixth innings, while riding a surprisingly strong performance from starter Ubaldo Jimenez to a 2-0 victory that widened its lead over Toronto to two games.
Jimenez, the gangly right-hander who entered the game with an ugly 7.26 earned-run average, baffled the Blue Jays over eight innings to earn his third win of the season after lasting only 2 1/3 innings in his previous start. He allowed two hits and one walk and struck out eight batters in his best performance of 2017.
Ryan Goins, who owns the lowest batting average in Toronto's lineup, had the only Jays hit through seven innings, a two-out double to left field. Troy Tulowitzki worked a walk in the fifth, Kevin Pillar doubled in the eighth and Russ Martin singled in the ninth, but beyond that, there wasn't much action on the basepaths for the Blue Jays.
Kendrys Morales, who had seven hits and two career homers in 21 career at-bats against Jimenez, struck out three times. Jose Bautista, Josh Donaldson and all-star hopeful Justin Smoak, usually the engine that drives the Jays' offence, were all hitless as Toronto dropped two of three games to Baltimore. The team's record in June fell to 11-14.
Left-hander J.A. Happ, 2-5, took the loss. He surrendered eight hits and two earned runs over 6 1/3 innings.
Pillar provided some excitement for Blue Jays fans in the seventh, showing off his dynamic defensive abilities as he ran down a long fly ball hit by Ruben Tejada. The centre fielder chased a would-be extra-base hit all the way to the warning track and made a jumping grab before crashing hard into the wall to make the out.
He nearly negated that brilliance on the basepaths, however, with two out in the eighth. After swatting a shot toward to the right-field wall, Pillar began to trot to what he thought was a home run. But the ball landed at the bottom of the wall, and he was nearly thrown out as he eased into second base. He was stranded a batter later when Goins popped out.
Martin singled off Orioles closer Brad Brach with one out in the ninth, but Toronto could not make a game of it.
The Jays do not have much time to dwell on the result. The team continues its crucial stretch against the AL East with a three-game home series against the Boston Red Sox beginning Friday. The Jays are slated to face newly acquired Doug Fister in the opener, followed by ace lefty Chris Sale on Saturday and left-hander Drew Pomeranz in Sunday's finale.
Facing Fister provides the Blue Jays' biggest bats with a ripe opportunity to do some damage. Morales (7-for-22, 3 home runs), Bautista (6-for-15) and Donaldson (3-for-5) have each knocked around the right-hander, who was released from his minor-league deal with the Los Angeles Angels last Wednesday before being picked up by Boston two days later.
Saturday's match will likely be a different story. Sale, routinely among the American League's best pitchers, has tormented the Blue Jays in six career starts. He has a 1.90 ERA against Toronto over his six seasons as a starter. In four starts and 33 total innings at Rogers Centre, his ERA is 1.33 and his ratio of walks plus hits per innings pitched (WHIP) is a sparkling 0.85. In his only start against Toronto this season, he pitched eight innings and allowed four hits in a 4-1 victory on April 20.
Pomeranz, meanwhile, is a lesser-known quantity, having made only two career starts (four appearances) against Toronto, allowing four earned runs over 8 2/3 innings.
Following their series against the Sox, the Jays head to New York for three games against the Yankees before returning home for a four-game set against the Houston Astros next Thursday.