TORONTO – There are still plenty of questions that remain unanswered for the Toronto Blue Jays but, at least for now, the future of Roy Halladay is not chief among them.
The ace right-hander returned to the mound Tuesday night for the first time since the non-waiver trade deadline passed, and gave up five runs during his fifth complete game in a 5-3 loss to the New York Yankees.
Halladay (11-5) was mostly dominant in this one and trailed 2-1 until surrendering back-to-back home runs to Johnny Damon and Mark Teixeira with two out in the eighth, and another solo blast to Hideki Matsui leading off the ninth.
The lightning strikes reinforced the gap between the Yankees (64-42) and Blue Jays (51-55), who had some chances but couldn’t deliver a game-changing blow against Andy Pettitte (9-6) or the New York bullpen.
Vernon Wells did hit a two-run double in the eighth off Mariano Rivera to make it a one-run game, but they never wrestled away control of the game and the Yankees always had a response. Rivera stranded two runners in the ninth for his 31st save.
Now, with Halladay still in the fold after nearly four weeks of frenzied speculation, the Blue Jays must find a way to improve his supporting cast to have a realistic shot of contending in 2010.
The bigger picture matters little to fans right now, as they were content merely to see the team’s most popular player still in the same uniform. Just as he was last month when every start seemed like it might be his last for the Blue Jays, Halladay was greeted by a standing ovation from the crowd of 33,669 as he walked to the dugout from the bullpen after his warmups.
And he was shown love all night long.
“Doc’s just going to be Doc,” manager Cito Gaston said before the game. “He’s business as usual all the time.”
The Blue Jays must take the same approach with the final two months of the season, giving the games some purpose by using them to figure out how to address their many on-field issues.
“I think obviously finishing as strong as we can,” general manager J.P. Ricciardi said of his team’s late-season plans before the game. “We’re getting a lot of experience for our younger kids, which is good.
“I think ultimately we’d like to get (top prospect Travis) Snider back up here at some point, let him get some more playing time, and maybe a few other guys to start preparing ourselves for what we might look like next year.”
In that vein will be figuring out who will hit cleanup next season. Gaston said he plans to go with a combo of Lyle Overbay and Kevin Millar for the immediate future, suggesting the need might be solved in the winter, while Ricciardi envisioned Adam Lind in the role, with Aaron Hill in front of him.
“I think as we go forward, I can see those guys three and four,” said Ricciardi. “I can ultimately see Snider, maybe not three and four early, but right around those RBI spots.”
That neither Wells or Alex Rios, who in April were considered the team’s best offensive players, are even in the discussion is telling.
“Vernon and Rios are good players having down years,” said Ricciardi. “I have a lot of confidence those guys will bounce back.”
Identifying a closer is also a key need.
Gaston says Jason Frasor will serve as the team’s primary closer while Scott Downs recovers from his toe injury, with Brandon League and Jesse Carlson filling in as needed. Josh Roenicke, part of the bounty obtained from Cincinnati for Scott Rolen, was a closer in the minors and might also grow into the role.
Halladay is the key to it all, of course, as he’ll be counted on to front a green rotation next season.
He showed his ace stuff early Tuesday, responding with six shutout innings after coughing up a two-spot in the first.
The Yankees took a 2-0 lead in the first when Alex Rodriguez doubled home Damon and later scored when Halladay failed to corral Millar’s high relay of Matsui’s grounder to first.
The Blue Jays pulled to within one on a Rios sacrifice fly in the fourth.
Notes: RHP Shaun Marcum, working his way back from elbow surgery, hasn’t pitched since July 26 at triple-A Las Vegas because of a minor back problem. GM J.P. Ricciardi says Marcum’s recovery has otherwise gone well, although his much-awaited return to the Blue Jays may not come this season. “At what point is it worth it for us bringing him up here? What’s the point if he’s not 100 per cent ready to come up here?” said Ricciardi. “So I think at this point we’ll just keep watching him.” … Ricciardi also said there was no timetable for Casey Janssen, recovering from shoulder soreness, to return. “We’ll see,” he said. … Halladay gave up back-to-back homers for just the second time in his career. The other came June 5, 2007 versus Tampa Bay.