ST. PETERSBURG -- Blue Jays rookie Trent Thornton had been bitten by the Rays twice in his short career, and he entered the third go-round ready to flip the script.
Though the deciding run didn’t cross home until six innings after Thornton hit the showers, his struggles during a six-run fourth ultimately caused the game to enter extra innings, where the Rays evened the series on a 10th-inning walk-off wild pitch to earn a 7-6 victory on Tuesday night at Tropicana Field.
Reliever Buddy Boshers opened the 10th by yielding a double to Kevin Kiermaier and walking Matt Duffy. After Willy Adames reached on a bunt, Boshers rebounded to secure two outs before uncorking a wild pitch that sent Kiermaier scurrying home with the game-winner.
Early on, it looked as though Thornton had finally solved what troubled him earlier this season. The Blue Jays’ rookie righty leaned heavily on his four-seamer, cutter and splitter to slice through Tampa Bay’s lineup, holding the Rays to just two hits over his first three innings.
“I felt like I had my stuff early on in the game, and then I kind of just left three pitches over the plate that they took advantage of,” Thornton said. “When we have a six-run lead, I’ve got to be better than that.”
Like many talented young arms, Thornton has excelled the first time through the lineup but has been challenged by opponents’ adjustments afterward. It’s a learning curve Thornton has acknowledged and one the 25-year-old -- whose 22 starts lead the current Blue Jays this year -- is working hard to correct so that he can help pick up the slack left by the Trade Deadline departures of front-line starters Aaron Sanchez and Marcus Stroman.
In two prior starts against the Rays, Thornton had posted a 9.39 ERA, walked five and yielded three homers over 7 2/3 innings. A recent stint on the injured list appeared to sharpen his focus, and he came off the IL on Thursday to hold the Orioles to one run over six innings.
That initial outing boosted Thornton's confidence enough that he pitched Tampa Bay aggressively on Tuesday night, a strategy that worked well the first time through the lineup.
The second time wasn’t so kind, as Thornton yielded six runs in the fourth inning on three two-run home runs. It was the second time he’d allowed three homers in a start, with the first coming against -- you guessed it -- the Rays on April 12.
“After every outing, there are positives and negatives to take from it,” Thornton said. “For one thing, Austin Meadows has my number. I’m going to have to figure something out to get him out next time I pitch against them.
“I felt good from the start, it just came down to three pitches that weren’t over the heart of the plate. They weren’t well executed at all. If I execute those pitches, it could be a completely different story.”
Thornton’s teammates staked him to a 3-0 lead early to give him more room to maneuver.
Rays pitcher Andrew Kittredge struck out the first five batters he faced, two shy of an American League record, before Toronto turned the early trend on its end in a flash. Randal Grichuk singled to left to break the streak and stole second base just before Teoscar Hernandez drew a walk.
Brandon Drury’s 13th home run of the year brought them both home and gave the Blue Jays a 3-0 lead. It also spelled the beginning of the end for Kittredge, the Rays’ opener, who was replaced after 38 pitches and two innings.
That’s when Toronto really started to go to work. Cavan Biggio smashed a one-out pitch into the right-field seats to push the Blue Jays’ lead to 4-0 in the third, and a throwing error by Rays third baseman Matt Duffy allowed two more runs to score in the fourth.
For the briefest of moments -- three pitches, actually – it appeared that a 6-0 lead was more than enough to carry Toronto the rest of the way. But once the Rays’ half of the fourth inning began, all bets were off.
Toronto’s bullpen, still flying high after Monday’s combined shutout, combined for eight strikeouts and pitched shutout ball into the 10th in Thornton’s wake. The relievers, however, couldn’t do anything about their team’s offense, and Toronto managed just three hits over the final six frames.
“Our bullpen did an outstanding job,” manager Charlie Montoyo said. “Sammy [Gaviglio] was really good; kept us in the game. [Jason] Adam in the ninth inning, great job to get out of trouble also. Boshers was doing the same thing. He had the guy with two strikes, we just happened not to block a ball there at the end.”