TORONTO — Things were lining up well for the Blue Jays.
After winning three of the first four games this week against the Rays, Thursday offered an opportunity to drive home the dagger. With Kevin Gausman on the mound, it was a chance for Toronto to create some breathing room in a crowded AL Wild Card race and build on the league’s best September record.
The Blue Jays had the Rays on the mat, then let them up. With an early homer and five scoreless frames from Shane McClanahan, Tampa Bay snatched back the series finale from Toronto, 11-0, at Rogers Centre. The Blue Jays still earned a needed series victory, but its postseason picture didn’t get any clearer.
“Tough day today,” interim manager John Schneider said. “You gotta just flush it and move on.”
Schneider has been preaching urgency for weeks now, and the importance of the five-game series against the Rays was lost on none. The Blue Jays entered it a half-game back of the Rays and Mariners for the top Wild Card seed, and 5 1/2 up on the Orioles for the American League’s final postseason spot. A series win pushed Toronto ahead of Tampa Bay and Seattle heading into the weekend.
“The thought is not to say, “OK, we won the series,’” Schneider said before the game. “The thought is, ‘OK, we want four out of five.’”
The recipe for a win was there, with the Blue Jays carrying a hot lineup and the AL’s best starting pitcher by FIP. But an early Rays rally stole Toronto’s September momentum and never handed it back. Gausman could only watch as Yandy Díaz rounded the bases in the second inning and returned to the road dugout with a 4-0 Tampa Bay lead, greeted by a gauntlet of high fives.
Gausman quickly settled after the second frame, retiring 13 of 14 Rays from the second to sixth innings, but the damage was already done. Tampa Bay added plenty more runs late, including six in the ninth.
“To give them four in the second, obviously in a huge game to end the series, you know, unacceptable on my part,” Gausman said.
With five straight series wins, the Blue Jays have scaled the Wild Card standings, but Thursday’s loss dropped them back to the pack. They’re now tied with the Mariners and a half-game up on the Rays. Toronto no longer holds the first tiebreaker (head-to-head record) against Tampa Bay, Baltimore or Seattle. Holding a tiebreaker will be more important than ever this year, with no 163rd game to determine the final playoff spots and home field advantage.
With 18 games to play, the Blue Jays have 10 contests left against the Orioles and Rays, plenty of time to gain the upper hand against two division rivals in the hunt. Even though Thursday’s loss was a missed opportunity, fortunately for Toronto it won’t be the last. The Orioles arrive for a three-game series Friday.
“Tough day today, obviously,” Schneider said. “But you move on and open up another big series. They’re all going to be big going forward.”