TORONTO – A season-high four-game winning streak after a dismal stretch of baseball has shifted the atmosphere markedly around the Toronto Blue Jays in recent days.
“Nice to talk about something positive, isn’t it?” veteran slugger Matt Stairs said after a 4-3 victory over the Chicago White Sox on Sunday afternoon.
There was plenty of good to discuss, even though the Blue Jays (15-17) once again made things tougher on themselves than they needed to be before a crowd of 26,147.
Still, they were finally able to reward Roy Halladay (3-4) with a win after the ace right-hander threw four straight complete games but lost the last three because he was given a mere eight runs of support during that impressive run.
He didn’t go the distance in this one, allowing just three runs, one earned, with seven strikeouts in 7 1-3 outstanding innings. But after a David Eckstein error opened the door a three-run Chicago fourth that cut into a 4-0 lead, Halladay was untouchable, retiring his final 11 batters.
“For me that’s probably the most frustrating thing about the inning, it’s not the hits or what happened, it’s the fact we had just scored (three) and we gave them a chance to climb back in it,” said Halladay. “It makes it more important later on to try and buckle things down.”
As they have during their current win streak, the Blue Jays once again scored early, added on afterwards, received outstanding pitching and had manager John Gibbons push the right buttons with the bullpen.
To the dismay of the crowd, Gibbons pulled Halladay with one out in the eighth and Nick Swisher due up. On came Jesse Carlson, who got Swisher swinging, surrendered a flukey double off the infield seams to Orlando Cabrera and then got Jim Thome on strikes to escape trouble.
Jeremy Accardo then sat down the first two batters of the ninth before Scott Downs retired A.J. Pierzynski on a grounder to second to end it for his second save.
“It’s never easy taking (Halladay) out but you have to do what you think is right,” said Gibbons, who felt Swisher was seeing Halladay well. “Then you hope like hell it works.”
Things were dicey after Eckstein’s poor throw to first left runners and first and second with none out to open the fourth. Before all was said and done, an RBI single by Jim Thome, a run-scoring double by Paul Konerko and A.J. Pierzynski’s RBI groundout had made it a one-run game.
After that, however, the White Sox (14-15) did little to avoid their season-high fifth straight loss and eighth in 11 games. Even a pre-game display featuring their bats, a couple of blow-up dolls and some sex toys on a clubhouse couch designed to get them going didn’t help the way manager Ozzie Guillen hoped it might.
“Whoever bought it, it’s a lot of money,” he quipped before the game. “That’s the type of guys we have, the clubhouse has been quiet for the last couple of days and that’s something I don’t like to see.
“We have to stay at the same level of enthusiasm no matter what happens.”
Jose Contreras (2-3) was the hard-luck loser in a complete-game loss but left his team facing an early deficit.
The Blue Jays opened the scoring in the second when Stairs doubled, advanced to second on Vernon Wells’ groundout to the right side and scored on Lyle Overbay’s sacrifice fly.
They went up 4-0 in the third when Stairs clubbed a big two-out, two-run double and then scored just ahead of the throw from Swisher on a base hit to centre by Wells. It’s the third straight game in which the Blue Jays have come up with a key two-out hit.
“I think what happens is when you finally have a big two-out knock the team relaxes a little bit, like the last couple days,” said Stairs. “Guys don’t put so much pressure on themselves.”
The early runs have also given the Blue Jays a chance to pitch with the lead, which in turn puts more pressure on the opposition given the way they’ve thrown the ball this season.
“It’s a comfort level for the pitchers,” said Halladay. “There’s something about being on top, it’s sometimes a little defeating when you’re always pitching behind.
“It’s nice to get those runs and get a little confidence.”
The offence was needed as the Eckstein error helped cause the Blue Jays to surrender more than two runs for the first time since an 8-4 loss at Kansas City on April 25.
Had Halladay managed to go the distance, he would have been the first pitcher to throw five straight complete games since Curt Schilling back in May 1999 with Philadelphia.
“I’d rather go five innings and get a win,” Halladay said smiling, “than go nine and lose.”
Notes: Dave Stieb holds the Blue Jays record for consecutive complete games with seven, way back in 1980. Jim Clancy (’83), Doyle Alexander (1984-85) and Pat Hentgen (’96) threw five in a row. … The last pitcher to lose three straight complete games was Randy Johnson with Arizona in 1999. It happened to Clancy back in 1982. … Stairs is a big Montreal Canadiens fan and opened his discussion with reporters with a few words about their Game 5 loss to Philadelphia on Saturday. “I’d like to start out with a few words for the Habs,” he said. “It wasn’t very well liked in my house last night when they lost, a couple of chairs went out the window. I’m just kidding. Let’s talk some baseball.”