Sitting out a third straight game with back spasms, Jose Bautista had watched the Blue Jays strike out 10 times and muster only six hits against Jose Quintana and a pair of relievers in a 7-0 loss to the Chicago White Sox.
As a team, the Jays (6-9) went 0-for-4 with runners in scoring position, sinking the overall team average with runners on second and/or third bases to a meagre .185, almost 50 points below the team batting average of .233, in itself a stat ranked among the bottom four in the American League.
Paradoxically, the woeful numbers through 15 games add up to optimism for Bautista. Speaking with a few writers after the game with an ice pack strapped to his back, he stated the obvious, that the hitting is bound to improve.
"I'm not worried about anything," he said. "We can use a little more consistency as an offensive unit. We don't need any more hits, but we need some hits at the right time."
Munenori Kawasaki, his hitting style borrowed heavily from his hero Ichiro Suzuki, was twice left in scoring position and stranded a third time as the Jays once again failed to come up with a game altering hit. The team average with runners in scoring position slipped further Wednesday as Melky Cabrera left Kawasaki on second in the third inning, striking out on a high fastball, and grounded out to end the fifth after Rajai Davis had doubled Kawasaki to third.
In the sixth, Edwin Encarnacion reached second base with one out, but Brett Lawrie flew out and Colby Rasmus struck out for the third of four times in the game, all against left-handers.
The key in the tight AL East is to stay in the bunch. Eventually, one team will get on a roll.
"We've hit a lot of balls on the screws and they've gone right at somebody," Bautista said. "Two of those balls fall in, we could have won those games, and we're over .500."
The batting order hasn't jelled in part due to injuries, with Lawrie (oblique strain) having missed the first 14 games, leadoff hitter Jose Reyes (ankle) going down last Friday, and Bautista out (ankle, back) now six games and running. Encarnacion (.232) is a case in point for hitting the ball hard without the average to show for it, Cabrera (.259) started to warm up but has cooled again, and neither Maicer Izturis (.163) nor Emilio Bonifacio (.200) has met expectations to date.
Entering the game, many of the White Sox key offensive stats were neck-and-neck with the Blue Jays. Tyler Flowers gave Quintana all the room required by hitting a three-run homer in the second inning. Alexei Ramirez's run-scoring double in the fourth and former Jay Alex Rios, still being booed at the Rogers Centre, made it 5-0 with a solo homer in the sixth against Toronto starter J.A. Happ.
"We got some key hits tonight and hopefully now we can continue the momentum," Rios said.
Quintana held Toronto to five hits while striking out seven in 6-2/3 innings, exploiting a lineup that Gibbons characterizes often as "aggressive," which is code for 'strikeouts will happen'. "I don't know if you can change a guy's way of thinking," Gibbons said, adding that hitting habits are acquired in the early days of minor league experience.
Rasmus collected his fourth strikeout leading off the ninth, and leads the club with 23, on pace for 165. The Jays broke a tie with the White Sox in the strikeout category. With 107 entering the game, they'd shared fourth place for most strikeouts, behind Houston, Boston and Oakland in the AL.
As well, on-base percentage trailed the AL average significantly entering the game. They are missing a healthy Bautista in the order. When the slap hitting Kawasaki generates the most enthusiastic ovation from a crowd of slightly under 16,000 as he comes to the plate, it's a reliable indicator that the offence is struggling. Much of the crowd streamed out of the Rogers Centre in the seventh inning.
"There's a lot of passion here," he said. "They want to win, so do I."
Bautista hurt his back during the Kansas City series, though when or how, he doesn't know.
"The competitor in me wants [to play] but the professional in me wants to do what's right," Bautista said, saying that to play would be to risk worsening the injury over the long haul of a season. "We have great players here who can play in my absence."
His back tightened on the plane home from Kansas City on Sunday evening. On Monday and Tuesday, he left the stadium thinking it had recovered well enough for him to play the next night, only to wake up to stiffness and pain.
Last season, he missed all but two games after July 16 with a wrist injury that required surgery to heal a tendon. He said he withstood neck problems two years ago, when he played in 149 of 162 games and led the Major Leagues in home runs, walks and slugging percentage.