PITTSBURGH - The reeling Toronto Blue Jays fired manager John Gibbons on Friday in a desperate attempt to keep a season of high expectations from slipping away to disaster.

The move comes amid a spirit-breaking stretch of 13 losses in 17 games that has buried them in the AL East basement with a 35-39 record.

He's the third manager fired this week, after Willie Randolph (Mets) and John McLaren (Seattle).

Former Blue Jays manager Cito Gaston takes over on an interim basis, hoping to revive the team's fortunes.

The Jays also fired coaches Marty Pevey, Ernie Whitt and Gary Denbo.

Gibbons entered the season on perilous ground, with his US$650,000, one-year contract due to expire at the end of the year. He found himself in hot water after an 11-17 April but the Blue Jays got back on track, and then some, during a 20-10 May.

Then three hard-to-swallow losses at the beginning of June - a 4-3 loss June 1 at Anaheim on a blown B.J. Ryan save; a 9-8 defeat June 5 at Yankee Stadium on Jason Giambi's walkoff homer off an 0-2 Ryan pitch; and a 6-5 loss June 6 at home to Baltimore when the bullpen blew a 4-0 lead in the eighth - killed their mojo and it's been a struggle for them ever since.

The main problem is that the team's offensive woes from 2007 have extended into this year and the burden of again carrying the team is beginning to cause fissures in the pitching staff.

The question now is whether the change can ignite the team, and if not, whether further changes are in the offing.

General manager J.P. Ricciardi has repeatedly said Gibbons should not be a scapegoat for the team's troubles but ultimately had to make him one with his team unable to emerge from its slide.

The decision was not an easy one for Ricciardi, who roomed with Gibbons when both were prospects in the New York Mets system during the early 1980s and have been friends since.

Gibbons certainly bears no fault for his lineup's inability to produce at the plate. He pushed the cause of some players to employ a more aggressive style of ball, giving more runners the green light to steal bases, sacrificing more runners over and using the hit and run more often.

But at the end of the day, a lineup featuring too many spare parts isn't delivering timely, big hits and the losses piled up because of it.

Gibbons, a laid-back, back-slapping Texan who could lay down the law when necessary, was a players' manager who mostly tried to stay out of his team's way.

He was routinely criticized by fans, who vented their frustration at an easy target. But he's an astute baseball man savvy enough to keep his clubhouse content and the executive staff above him placated.

Since taking over from the fired Carlos Tosca on an interim basis Aug. 8, 2004, Gibbons compiled a 270-266 (plus this season) record. Only his replacement Gaston (683-636) and Bobby Cox (355-292) have had longer tenures than him in franchise history.

Fans will most likely remember Gibbons for a pair of incidents with Shea Hillenbrand and Ted Lilly during the 2006 season.

Gibbons challenged Hillenbrand to a fight in the clubhouse after the disgruntled infielder left mutinous scribbles on a clubhouse whiteboard last July. In August, Gibbons and Lilly had a physical altercation in the dugout tunnel following an argument on the mound.

Neither incident seemed to harm him much in the eyes of his players, with both ace Roy Halladay and centre-fielder Vernon Wells offering crucial endorsements of him at the time.

The Blue Jays' best season under Gibbons was 2006, when they finished second in the AL East at 87-75.

They stumbled backwards last season, falling back to third at 83-79, amid a slew of injuries to Ryan, Wells, Troy Glaus, Halladay, A.J. Burnett, Reed Johnson and Gregg Zaun.

Gibbons never received deserved credit from keeping that team on the rails and above .500 despite the injuries, while incorporating youngsters Dustin McGowan, Shaun Marcum, Jeremy Accardo, Casey Janssen and Jesse Litsch to the team.

On May 29 he won his 300th career game as a manager, a 12-0 thumping of Oakland, and appeared headed to better things.

Now he's out of work.

Gaston becomes the fourth Blue Jays manager in seven years under Ricciardi. Tosca replaced the fired Buck Martinez, whom Ricciardi inherited from former GM Gord Ash, midway through the 2002 season.

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