TORONTO -- The Blue Jays may have gotten off to a strong start this season, but they still have a lot of work to do in the American League East.Toronto opened the season undefeated over its first six series. Since then, the Blue Jays have dropped five of their last
TORONTO -- The Blue Jays may have gotten off to a strong start this season, but they still have a lot of work to do in the American League East.
Toronto opened the season undefeated over its first six series. Since then, the Blue Jays have dropped five of their last seven games, with the latest coming in a 5-4 loss to the Red Sox on Thursday night at Rogers Centre.
Last year, the Blue Jays finished fourth in the AL East with a 76-86 record, and their performance within the division was a primary reason why. Toronto went 33-43 against its rivals, and this year has started in similar fashion with a mark of 6-8, including the five recent losses courtesy of Boston and New York.
"We battled, those games are tough, but if you're going to do anything, you have to beat the top teams," Blue Jays manager John Gibbons said. "I think we can do that. We just need to tighten some things up and really get our starting rotation on a roll. We're killing our 'pen right now, that's for sure. That can't hold up. "
The Blue Jays' rotation now boasts a 4.92 ERA, which ranks 10th in the AL. That might be good enough for some teams, but not a Toronto organization that went into this year believing its rotation had to stack up with the best in baseball in order to contend. So far this season, the offense has exceeded expectations, but the rotation has been the exact opposite.
That was the case again on Thursday night, as Marco Estrada took the loss after he allowed five runs on eight hits and a walk while striking out five. The crafty veteran continues to be plagued by the long ball, as a three-run homer by J.D. Martinez in the fifth inning proved to be the difference-maker. In five starts this season, Estrada has allowed seven home runs.
Estrada opened the year with a pair of quality starts, but he has now allowed 14 runs over his last 14 innings. His struggles overshadowed a successful day for Toronto's offense against one of the game's best pitchers. Chris Sale, who entered with a 1.86 ERA, surrendered one run in each of the first three innings before eventually settling into a groove. Sale allowed four hits and a pair of walks with four strikeouts and picked up the win thanks to Martinez's homer.
"They've been really close," Estrada said of the Red Sox series, which contained three games that were all decided by one run. "We're just as good as any team, I believe. Every single one of these games, the two toughest teams in the division, we're right there with them. A lot of these games could have gone the other way and it's a good sign for us."
Devon Travis went 2-for-4 with a home run, a double and an RBI in the loss while Justin Smoak also chipped in with a two-hit night that included a solo home run. The fact that the Blue Jays took an early 3-1 lead against arguably Major League Baseball's top pitcher but then let it slip away made Thursday's loss a little harder to take than normal.
"The good ones, when they smell the lead, whether they're on or off, they close it out," Gibbons said. "That's what separates those guys. I like the way we battled. We had some chances. The big home run definitely hurt, but that's why they pay some of those guys all that money. [Martinez] is not just a power guy, he's a good all-around hitter."
MOMENTS THAT MATTERED
Rally cut short: Toronto was trailing by one in the bottom of the eighth when Kevin Pillar and Curtis Granderson drew a pair of one-out walks vs. Red Sox reliever Matt Barnes. That moved the potential tying run into scoring position, but Barnes escaped the jam as Randal Grichuk grounded out and Luke Maile struck out swinging. That was as close as the Blue Jays would get, as Craig Kimbrel entered in the ninth to pick up his seventh save of the year.
Travis time: Travis has gotten off to an extremely slow start this season, but there were signs of life in the second inning. Toronto's second baseman looked at a 92.7-mph fastball down the heart of the plate and sent it over the wall in left field for his first home run of the season. According to Statcast™, the no-doubter was projected to travel 415 feet and it left his bat at 111 mph.. For Travis, it was just his second extra-base hit of the season and his first since April 6. Before the game was over, Travis added another one with a double to left.
"It felt good, I felt better," Travis said. "Just grinding away. Pitch by pitch. Trusting the process. … It's why you do put in the work. Today was a more comfortable day for me at the plate and I look forward to more of those days."
Estrada picked up career strikeout No. 1,000 when he got Mitch Moreland swinging to lead off the second inning. Toronto's veteran starter became one of 53 active pitchers to reach the milestone. Estrada is also five strikeouts away from becoming the 20th pitcher in franchise history to record 500 strikeouts in a Blue Jays uniform.
YOU GOTTA SEE THIS
Pillar brought back memories of the 2016 AL Division Series against Texas with his sacrifice fly off Sale in the bottom of the first inning. In Game 2 of the ALDS vs. Yu Darvish, Pillar homered on a pitch that was 4.2 feet off the ground. Against Sale, Pillar went even higher with his swing by making contact on a pitch that was 4.4 feet off the ground. Pillar drove the ball to deep right field to open the scoring as Teoscar Hernandez easily scored from third.
MITEL REPLAY OF THE DAY
Toronto had runners on first and second in the bottom of the eighth with one out when Grichuk hit a slow chopper to shortstop. Tzu-Wei Lin fielded the ball and made a throw that caused first baseman Moreland to make a long stretch for the grab. First-base umpire Kerwin Danley signaled for the out, but Gibbons wanted a closer look. Following a brief review, the call on the field stood.
The Blue Jays will open a three-game series against the Rangers when right-hander Marcus Stroman (0-2, 8.55 ERA) takes the mound on Friday night at Rogers Centre, with first pitch scheduled for 7:07 p.m. ET. Stroman has been struggling with his command this season as evidenced by 14 walks over 20 innings. Stroman has never walked more than 2.8 batters per nine innings in a full season. Texas will counter with lefty Mike Minor (1-1, 3.86 ERA).
Gregor Chisholm has covered the Blue Jays for MLB.com since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @gregorMLB and Facebook, and listen to his podcast.