Villanueva can't snap Jays skid
Toronto Blue Jays starting pitcher Carlos Villanueva throws against the Seattle Mariners during the second inning of their American League game at Safeco Field in Seattle, August 1, 2012. (REUTERS)
In times of need the Blue Jays have trotted out their good-luck charm otherwise known as Carlos Villanueva.
However, even the presence of the personable Villanueva wasn't enough to turn the Blue Jays sagging fortunes around as the Jays were swept in the three-game series, losing the finale 5-3 to the Seattle Mariners on Wednesday night. It was their fourth consecutive loss.
Villanueva entered the game unbeaten at 6-0, including a 4-0 record since moving into a starting role.
However, it all turned south for the Jays and Villanueva when in the fifth, ex-Jay Eric Thames slammed a two-run home run to centre in his first game since switching teams at Monday's trade deadline.
Thames' launch to centre tied the game 3-3 and one inning later, the Mariners would take the lead on John Jaso's RBI single to centre.
It always figured on being a tough 10-game road trip but now, after losing the opening three, the Jays are up against it as they face the red-hot Oakland A's over the next four days before ending the trip in Tampa Bay, a place where they never play well.
"Obviously coming in here and being swept, nobody's happy with that," Villanueva said. "We're extremely disappointed in ourselves. It doesn't matter who we're missing or who's playing but we have to pick it up. We have to start better and we have to hit better.
"Going into Oakland, they're playing hungry right now, they're playing for the playoffs and we should be doing the same thing. We've gone through this before, though, and we've bounced back. I think this is a stretch, the next seven games, we're going to show ourselves what we're made of."
Offensively, the Jays have been scratching for hits and runs in their previous three losses and in the series finale they didn't have an explosion of hits either.
When they connected, though, the ball travelled a long way as Colby Rasmus and Kelly Johnson belted solo home runs for their first two runs.
Rasmus, who had been in a 0-for-10 skid, powered his shot out in the first inning, his 19th homer of the season.
Johnson's shot to centre occurred in the fourth with two out and was his 12th of the season. It was also just his third homer in his past 52 games.
"We need to get going, to get the bats going," Johnson said of the Jays. "We need to score some runs, manufacture (runs), do things with Jose (Bautista) out of the lineup, start creating runs. It will turn, it will be alright."
The Mariners came back with a run in the bottom of the fourth due to David Cooper's lack of range at first.
After Dustin Ackley opened the inning with a single to right - the Mariners first hit of the game - Michael Saunders followed with a grounder about five feet to Cooper's right.
Cooper initially froze on the play then dived too short and too late on a ball most first baseman would have turned into a double play. Instead it was runners at the corners.
Edwin Encarnacion is a superior fielder with more range than Cooper but he has been suffering from a sore left heel and Farrell was keeping him off the field as much as possible.
But that's the way the ball has been bouncing for the Jays this season.
Villanueva kept the Mariners to a run as he induced Jesus Montero to ground into a run-scoring double play.
In the fifth the Jays made it 3-1 on a sac fly by Jeff Mathis. The inning looked like it was building into something bigger as they had Rajai Davis at second and Anthony Gose at first with two out and the dangerous Colby Rasmus at the plate.
But on a 2-2 pitch, Davis looked to take off for third and Gose raced into second behind him. The problem was that Davis stopped halfway and retreated to second. With Gose standing there, he was caught in a rundown for the third out.
"As soon as Rajai breaks and commits to stealing a bag, Anthony's reading that," manager John Farrell said. "Where things obviously got fouled up, once he committed to go to third base and when he stopped halfway there, that got everybody in no-man's land.
"Over aggressiveness, trying to force things on our part. We get two guys in scoring position on a base hit we're looking at potentially two runs. The way Colby was swing the bat previous, we got two guys with well above-average speed and very good base stealing skills. Offensively it seemed like that was the turning point for us."
With a right-hander on the mound, rookie Anthony Gose made a return to the lineup in right field.
With the trading away of Travis Snider and Thames, Gose would seem to be the heir apparent for the job in left once Jose Bautista returns and likely will platoon at that spot with right-handed hitting Rajai Davis through the rest of this season.
Right now, Gose looks to be overmatched at the plate, perhaps more than a little in awe, but has shown that he has the tools to be excellent defensively. On the base paths, he's a rocket.
"The one thing that I think has shown up a little bit is he's been a little bit late. You see where his front foot is in relation to the flight of the baseball, he's been late getting his front foot down to have a firm front side to hit against," manager John Farrell said. "That's getting accustomed to the speed of the game at this level. And that's not the speed of the pitch, that's everything else around it that might be a different environment in which he's playing in right now.
"He's taken some better swings. The base hit on the homestand, the line drive to left-centre field, to me that would be the ideal swing for him at this point."
In Wednesday's game, Gose executed the swing that Farrell seeks and hit a sinking line shot to left in his first at-bat in the third. However, out in left ex-Jay Eric Thames was playing shallow and was able to make a fine shoestring catch for the out.
In the fifth with Rajai Davis on first, Gose dragged a bunt single up the first-base line.
Instead of inside-out swings, though, Gose has been jumping at the ball and has hit a number of grounders to first, his pull side.
"When he's kind of cheated early in the count to go get a fastball, that's the caught-in-between a little bit, too quick or too late. Yeah, he's gaining experience every time he steps in the box."
It's the classic case of a player not looking to be quite ready but until he gets into the big leagues, he'll never get ready.
"Any time you're gaining experience for the first time, the greatest teacher that anybody can run into is what takes place out there," Farrell said, pointing to the field. "There's got to be ample enough at-bats or opportunities to get a read on what the game is like at this level. The greatest teacher lies between the lines and how he adapts to it and finds ways to shorten his swing or get his front foot down a little earlier, to incorporate the bunting game - yeah they'll be a dose of that."
Each time Gose has jumped a level he's got off to a slow start and this jump is the biggest he's ever made.
"I think that progression is not an uncommon one," Farrell said. "I think it's encouraging that that's the trend that is set. We just have to be patient in this case and not be quick to judge without letting it play itself out a little bit."