TORONTO – The Toronto Blue Jays closed out the home portion of their schedule with the type of victory too infrequently seen during their dismal season, one featuring some timely hitting, solid pitching and a spirited comeback.
Sunday’s 5-4 win over the Seattle Mariners – keyed by RBI singles from Jose Bautista, Adam Lind and Rod Barajas in the eighth inning – capped a 6-1 homestand and left the Blue Jays at 72-84 for the year and 44-37 at the Rogers Centre, where some of their best moments have come.
They open a three-game series in Boston on Monday before heading to Baltimore for three more starting Friday to mercifully wrap up 2009.
“The whole homestand we played great baseball,” said Barajas, who is headed for free agency. “We took care of the home crowd. It was great for us, hopefully we can build on this going into next year.”
Brian Wolfe (2-2) gave up Mike Sweeney’s solo shot in the top of the eighth but earned the win anyway when his team rallied in the bottom half. Shawn Camp pitched the ninth for his first save.
Brian Tallet, the lefty swingman who exceeded all expectations this year, pitched seven solid innings and touched only for three solo shots in the fifth, back-to-back jobs by Kenji Johjima and Matt Tuiasosopo, plus a blast by Franklin Gutierrez later in the inning.
But that wasn’t enough for the Mariners (80-76), as Ryan Rowland-Smith (4-4) fell apart after seven strong innings. He had surrendered only a sacrifice fly to Barajas and a generously scored RBI single to Kevin Millar in the fifth to that point.
The feel-good homestand was reminiscent of the team’s the exciting beginning, when a 27-14 start had fans believing a trip to the post-season for the first time since 1993 was a distinct possibility. But it was an illusion, built on some hot bats and a weak schedule.
Then the bottom on a flawed roster fell out. Roy Halladay was publicly placed on the trade market but ultimately kept, B.J. Ryan was released, Scott Rolen was dealt, and Alex Rios was essentially given away to the Chicago White Sox on a waiver claim.
The dream ride turned into a train wreck in an instant.
“I always know where the cream’s at,” manager Cito Gaston said before the game when asked if he became absorbed by the quick start. “If you know your team at all, and once people started to go down and you’re bringing kids in to pitch, it tells you even more. As it happened, some of them pitched well and some of them didn’t pitch so well.
“I think we were lacking.”
The fans soon started tuning out, a Rogers Centre record low for attendance was established when 11,159 attended Halladay’s 4-1 loss to the Twins on Sept. 9, and the place didn’t refill until the final two home games of the year.
A crowd of 39,052 took in the finale, which pushed the season total to 1,876,129, their lowest total since 2003, and well off last year’s count of 2,400,416. With so many questions up and down the organization, it’s unclear if anything will draw them back for 2010.
“Our attendance had been down of late and we haven’t played the greatest ball,” said Tallet. “To finish off strong at home gives the fans something to remember.”
The future of GM J.P. Ricciardi remains unsettled, a president and CEO to replace the seemingly forever interim Paul Beeston still needs to be hired, and a direction for the club needs to be plotted.
If things don’t play out well in the off-season, Halladay is likely to be dealt, bringing on a full-scale rebuilding.
“If we don’t add anybody, or go get somebody that can help out, I doubt if we keep him,” said Gaston. “That’s just my opinion. I don’t know that. Would it make any sense? Probably not.”
Shortstops Marco Scutaro and John McDonald, Barajas and Millar are all headed to free agency and could join Halladay out the door.
“I reflected on it a little bit,” said McDonald, the defensive whiz beloved by fans. “I looked around at the crowd, you appreciate it that they come out. They’ve done a great job of cheering for me over the last five years.”
Added Barajas: “Coming to the field in it ran through my mind. If it was my last home game, I wanted to go out on a positive note.”
Their departures would further pare down the payroll commitments trimmed by the departures of Ryan, Rolen and Rios (massive pictures of whom, ironically, remain on the back of the Rogers Centre). There are murmurs it could go up from the current US$80 million, or go down.
Asked if Ryan’s performance was a disappointment, a blunt Gaston said he wasn’t “because even when I was here last year he didn’t really excite me. I think he got by out there a lot of times barely by the skin of his teeth. … You saw him pitch last year, he was just getting by. Coming into spring training, he didn’t throw well at all, enough that he decided not to go play on that American team (at the World Baseball Classic).”
As for Rolen, Gaston insisted he wanted out: “If Rolen had a chance to leave he was going to leave. If he could get back to the Midwest – that’s where he wanted to go.”
There was some good.
Aaron Hill and Lind became just the fifth different pair to record 30-homer, 35-double and 100-RBI seasons together; rookie lefties Ricky Romero, in particular, and Marc Rzcepczynski each emerged into legitimate starters; and outfielder Travis Snider, a future cornerstone, endured a lot of growing pains while showing an ability to dominate.
Notes: Gaston said left-hander David Purcey would likely start either Friday or Saturday in Baltimore. Either Tallet or Scott Richmond of North Vancouver, B.C., will be bumped to make room. … Rowland-Smith is the only big-league player to ever have a hyphenated last name. His Twitter handle is (at)hyphen18. … Camp, the mop-up man pitching the ninth because others in the bullpen were fatigued, earned his first save since 2006.