TORONTO - This was a time for the Toronto Blue Jays to put their foot on the throat of their opponents, with a sweep on the table, and victory six outs away after seven hard-fought innings.
Instead, they let up just a little and in what seemed like an instant, their lead was gone and a whole new set of questions about the bullpen was upon them. A four-run rally in the eighth inning gave the New York Yankees a 4-3 victory Sunday, allowing them to salvage one of three games over the weekend.
It was yet another tough-to-swallow loss for the Blue Jays (33-25), who settled for a 6-3 homestand after splitting six games versus a pair of American League East titans, the Tampa Bay Rays and the Yankees (35-22). That might have been considered a solid showing had they not blown leads in the eighth inning or later in the three losses, leaving a sense of missed opportunity around the club.
"We kept our foot on their throats a bit," said Blue Jays manager Cito Gaston. "They seemed to wiggle out of it."
Leading 2-0 after Brandon Morrow had dominated the Yankees through seven innings on four hits and a walk, the roof caved in before a crowd of 33,622 much the way it did in two losses to the Rays last week.
The door to a rally opened when Morrow hit leadoff batter Francisco Cervelli in the shoulder in the eighth with his final pitch of the day. On came Scott Downs (1-5), who promptly hit Brett Gardner before surrendering an RBI double to Derek Jeter, and just that quickly the time bomb was ticking.
Jason Frasor came in and got Nick Swisher on a check swing — manager Joe Girardi got ejected arguing the call — before Mark Teixeira was walked intentionally to load the bases for Alex Rodriguez. The move actually worked out when he struck out, but not before a wild pitch brought home Gardner with the tying run.
Then Robinson Cano came to the plate and Cito Gaston went to the mound, giving his reliever the choice of which all-star to face. First base was open, Jorge Posada was on deck and both he and Cano were a career 3-for-11 against Frasor (two of Posada's hits were home runs).
Frasor opted for Cano, who sliced a 1-0 fastball just in front of left-fielder Fred Lewis for a two-run single that put the Yankees up to stay at 4-2. So much for their first series sweep of the Yankees since taking a four-gamer at New York in May 2003.
"I just felt comfortable with Cano right there, I think I've had a little bit more success with Cano as of late, anyways," said Frasor. "I guess I chose wrong."
So too did Gaston, who didn't have one reliable reliever to call on against the Yankees and Rays. In the six games, the Blue Jays bullpen gave up 13 runs over 15 innings, the only stellar performance coming Saturday, with six scoreless relief frames in a 3-2, 14-inning win.
Otherwise seatbelts were needed, no matter which direction Gaston turned.
"I'm not going to play dumb and say the bullpen had a great homestand," said Frasor. "They were great (Saturday) but my homestand wasn't very good, and sometimes it's good to go on the road."
The Blue Jays tried to rally in the bottom of the eighth, getting a double from Jose Molina and an RBI single from Fred Lewis, but that was that, and Mariano Rivera came on in the ninth to close things out for his 13th save.
Instead of sitting on New York's tail, half-a-game back for the wild-card, the Blue Jays instead fell 2 1/2 games off the pace.
"You had a chance to win them all but a split is not bad, either," said Gaston. "We're not going to leave here and not be happy about the way we played, because we did play well."
The Blue Jays opened the scoring when Vernon Wells collected his team's first and only hit of the day off Javier Vazquez (5-5), a two-run shot in the sixth after Adam Lind walked.
Other than that, there was almost no offence to speak of between the two teams as Morrow and Vazquez locked things down.
Trying to improve on his location, Morrow dialled it down a few notches Monday against the Tampa Bay Rays and found both the strike zone and success. The hope was the fireballing right-hander would eventually turn things back up and still retain his command, something he did brilliantly versus the Yankees.
"The last start I had good mechanics and command and I tried to build off that, add some arm speed," said Morrow. "It was a big game for us and adrenaline always plays into the picture, it was a big game for me to pitch in. Same mechanics, I was just letting it go a little more."
Morrow's fastball sat between 94 and 96 m.p.h. and topped out at 98 in his seven dominating innings, as he struck out eight. He also featured a mid-70s curveball, plus a slider and changeup in the high 80s that kept the Yankees off balance.
Vazquez, the former Montreal Expo, was just as good, allowing just the two runs on a hit and four walks, while striking out nine, holding down the Blue Jays until the Yankees could rally.
"I think we played some good teams," said Wells. "We're going to lose some games like that, unfortunately, it is frustrating but we played two of the best teams in baseball (six times) and had a chance to win every one of them."
Notes:Blue Jays 3B Edwin Encarnacion was given the day off because of leg soreness. Jose Bautista started in his place at 3B, with Jeremy Reed sliding into RF. ... Jays manager Cito Gaston turned down an invitation to coach in next month's all-star game from Girardi. "I want him to spend that time with my family," said Gaston. "It was nice of him to think of me." ... Brian Tallet starts Tuesday at Tampa Bay as the Blue Jays open a three-game set that wraps up a stretch of nine games versus the Rays and Yankees. Shaun Marcum and Brett Cecil will follow him.