A persistent inability to stake starting pitchers to early leads has been a crucial factor in the Blue Jays disappointing record to date.
On Saturday, the offence manufactured a run in the third and scored two more in the fourth for a 3-0 lead off Yankees ace CC Sabathia, only to see starting pitcher J.A. Happ walk Vernon Wells and Kevin Youkilis consecutively to start the fourth inning. Travis Hafner made him pay immediately by hitting a three-run homer to tie the game.
"You've got to have a shutdown inning when you take the lead like that," said manager John Gibbons.
Hafner struck again in the seventh inning after the Jays had retaken the lead, driving in Wells with the winning run, his fly ball deflecting off centre fielder Rajai Davis's glove to cap a game-deciding two-run rally.
With the 5-4 defeat, the Blue Jays fell to 6-10 in games decided by two runs or fewer, for an overall record of 9-16. They're in a rut. When they get one thing right, another goes wrong.
Gibbons is highly reluctant to call out players. His criticism of Happ indicates a mushrooming frustration.
"I'm giving you guys the same comments every night," Gibbons told a group of reporters. "I'm getting tired of it. ... Part of it is [poor] defence. Part of it is, you've got to make that big pitch or get the big hit. It's that simple."
Said Jose Bautista, who hit his seventh home and otherwise has six hits on the season for a .188 batting average: "We're much better than this."
The Yankees have won the first three games of the series, and go for the sweep Sunday against Toronto knuckleballer R.A. Dickey.
The Jays have depleted their bullpen with shallow starts, most recently as Aaron Laffey issued five walks on Friday and couldn't get out of the third inning in a 6-4 loss. Happ, the No. 5 starter in the rotation, held the Yankees scoreless in five of his six innings (eight hits, three runs, two costly walks). He accepted responsibility for issuing the walks.
"They always say you have to put up a couple of zeroes after we get some runs like that," he said. "It's frustrating ... I made a bad pitch to Hafner."
In the sixth inning, Brett Lawrie had hit his second homer of the season, to the short right-field porch, to reinstate the lead, 4-3. Both homers have gone to the opposite field.
The Yankees picked up Wells in a trade with the Angels in March after adding Hafner in February due to injuries. Each is hitting .309. Hafner hasn't hit lefties well the past few years but he got both key hits off left-handers on Saturday.
In the Jays clubhouse afterwards, Happ reflectively wondered whether he "over-analyzed" the situation on the mound. Hafner said he just "simplified things" in the batter's box.
"Get a good pitch to hit, put a good swing on it – it's that simple," he said.
Relief pitcher Esmil Rogers (1-2) replaced Happ to start the seventh inning and gave up a one-out double to Robinson Cano. From the right-field corner, Bautista almost caught Cano napping with a throw on the fly to shortstop Maicer Izturis.
Wells, 11-for-25 against the Blue Jays this season with three homers, got three sliders before Rogers served up a fastball that he lined into right field, bringing in Cano to tie. "He's got good stuff," Wells said. "I was just able to put the barrel on it."
Gibbons brought in lefty Brett Cecil to face Hafner. Wells stole third before Hafner hit the rainbow over Davis's head. The ball got caught in the wind before hitting his glove on the warning track, as had a Bautista liner in the top of the seventh that Brett Gardner tracked down.
"I know Davis is fast," Hafner said. "I saw it tick off his glove. Was pumped about that."
With Sabathia (4-2) starting for the Yankees, Gibbons used Davis in centre rather than the regular centre fielder, Colby Rasmus, who's made several terrific running catches during the road trip to Baltimore and New York. Gibbons said he gave no thought to replacing Davis for defensive purposes after the Jays got the lead.
Mariano Rivera being unavailable after recording saves in the prior two games, manager Joe Jirardi used Joba Chamberlain for the task in the ninth. The Jays had two runners on base with one out, but Davis popped out and Melky Cabrera – moved back to the 2-slot in the batting order with Rasmus being rested – hit a fielder's choice grounder to third to end it.
Rasmus appeared earlier in the ninth to pinch-hit and struck out.