Starting pitcher R.A. Dickey had described the team's state of play as "dysfunctional" after being hit hard in a loss on Saturday and on Sunday, during a pregame interview, relief pitcher Steve Delabar compared the Toronto Blue Jays to the boulder on top of a hill, needing a kick to get on a roll.
Offensively, the Blue Jays combined some aggressive small-ball play with more characteristic power hitting while, on the mound, a starting pitcher lasted eight innings for the first time this season in a 10-2 win over the Seattle Mariners at the sun-kissed Rogers Centre.
Afterward came the inevitable question from one interviewer after another – is this finally the game that triggers the type of performance expected of the team this season?
"What I think is, it's time to stop with the analogies, or the comparisons, or the expectations," outfielder Jose Bautista said Sunday, when the clubhouse had cleared of the media pack and teammates scurried to pack their bags for the flight to Tampa.
"Let's just focus every day, work hard, play hard, and hope for the best. Don't worry about the philosophy. It serves no good for everybody to figure out a way to say that we're playing bad. We need to play better, that's it."
Melky Cabrera, Mark DeRosa and Maicer Izturis had three hits each in a 15-hit onslaught against Joe Saunders (2-4) and a pair of relievers. Cabrera's homer, his first in 135 plate appearances and fourth extra-base hit of the season, led off the pivotal fifth inning and DeRosa, giving Brett Lawrie a day off at third, hit a three-run shot later in the same inning for a 7-2 lead.
They stole four bases and, addressing a season-long weakness, went 5-for-15 with runners in scoring position. There was even some comic relief at the expense of first baseman Edwin Encarnacion, who executed a skier's face-plant chasing an infield pop fly by Kendrys Morales in the eighth inning.
"I had to remind him, there's a pitcher's mound in the middle of the infield," Bautista said.
Brandon Morrow (1-2) held the Mariners to three hits, the Morales infield double included, surviving some soft infield defence and his own spurt of wildness in the top of the top of the fifth inning.
The Blue Jays (11-21) are 8-0 on the season when scoring five runs or more. Translated, they are 3-21 when scoring four runs or fewer. They've yet to win a series at home, losing six, and have been defeated in the first game of each of those series.
The starting rotation ranks in the bottom six of the American League in these categories: wins, earned-run average, batting average against, walks and hits per inning pitched (WHIP), innings and quality starts.
"We need to do a better job as a starting staff," Morrow said. "A month into it, we should probably have been there [eight innings] a few times by now. But the guys are coming around, starting to feel better and getting into the groove of the season. I think you'll see more of that now."
Fundamentally unsound defence has compromised the staff repeatedly by giving the opponents extra outs, as occurred again in the fifth. Morrow walked the first two hitters before DeRosa, at third base, backhanded catcher Jesus Montero's grounder but failed to get the force at second where the speedier Dustin Ackley beat his throw; DeRosa hung his head, understanding he might have got the out at first. The next hitter, Robert Andino, hit a potential double-play grounder to shortstop but Munenori Kawasaki made an off-balance throw to second rather than planting his right leg to make a hard throw, leaving Izturis no chance to turn the double play.
Opponents have capitalized on such events for big innings. This time, Morrow restricted the damage to a pair of runs despite issuing four walks in the inning, inducing cleanup hitter Michael Morse to fly out with the bases loaded and leaving the Jays ahead, 3-2.
The homers by Cabrera, the first batter up in the bottom of the inning, and DeRosa, a bench player carrying a .152 average into the game, put the game away.
"No one's giving up in here," DeRosa said. "We've got the guys to do it and we're going to keep going. Melky gets [three] hits and his first home run – we need him to swing the bat. He's been a great hitter his whole career, and he'd had a slow start. Getting the monkey off his back is huge. Maybe it relaxes him, hopefully Jose gets hot and ..."
Little things also made a difference Sunday. In the sixth, Bautista drew an intentional walk to load the bases before Encarnacion hit a grounder to second baseman Ackley for what could have been an inning ending double play. Instead, Bautista broke it up with a hard slide into second, allowing a run to score for an 8-2 lead.
"It's the way I normally play, and I don't think anything different because the game is 7-2," Bautista said. "I was aware of the situation so I made sure I got in there early. You can never have too many runs."
In the first inning, Cabrera took it upon himself to put down a sacrifice bunt following Rajai Davis's leadoff double. While dubious strategically, the move paid off. As Bautista's pop fly got caught in the wind, second baseman Dustin Ackley twisted his body to make a tough catch and stumbled to a knee. Davis took advantage by tagging up at third to beat the throw home easily. The Blue Jays have now scored first in 12 of 32 games.
In the second inning, J.P. Arencibia's single and DeRosa's double put runners at second and third with no out, presenting a less-than optimistic scenario with the .187-hitting Izturis, .171-hitting Emilio Bonifacio and .216-hitting Kawasaki due to bat. Izturis hit Saunders' first pitch for a RBI-single and, after holding at third on Bonifacio's grounder to shortstop Andino, DeRosa was running on contact when Kawasaki hit a nearly-identical grounder to Andino and scored for a 3-0 lead.
TORONTO BLUE JAYS AT TAMPA BAY RAYS
Monday, 7:10 p.m. (EDT): LHP Mark Buehrle (1-2, 6.43 ERA) vs. RHP Jeremy Hellickson (1-2, 4.71)
Tuesday, 7:10 p.m.: LHP J.A. Happ (2-2, 3.98) vs. RHP Roberto Hernandez (1-4, 5.28)
Wednesday, 7:10 p.m.: LHP Ricky Romero (0-1, 6.75) vs. LHP Matt Moore (5-0, 1.95)
Thursday, 7:10 p.m.: RHP R.A. Dickey (2-5, 5.36) vs. LHP David Price (1-3, 6.25)
Notes: Blue Jays went 1-8 in Tampa last year, 4-14 overall. The Rays have won the season series against Toronto for five consecutive seasons. … Rays have spent 16 days in fourth place in the American League East. They're 8-4 at home, and begin a 10-game homestand, with last-place San Diego (National League West) following last-place Toronto into Tropicana Field. … Former Jay Yunel Escobar was hit by a pitch Saturday and left the game with a bruised hand. The shortstop was left out of Sunday's lineup and is considered day to day. … Tampa is the only team in the majors with a rotation that's gone at least five innings in every game this season. … The pitching staff's 4.25 earned-run average entering Sunday's play was better only than LA's, Toronto's and Houston's. … 2012 Cy Young winner David Price was charged with nine runs in a loss to Colorado on Saturday, elevating his ERA to 6.25. … Tampa's defence was ranked sixth with 11 errors in 29 games, before Sunday.