ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Five games into the 2017 season, the Toronto Blue Jays are off to a 1-4 start, hitting .217 as a team with just three home runs, but manager John Gibbons isn’t hitting the panic button yet about his big bats.
“They will. They’ve all hit before,” Gibbons said after Saturday’s 3-2 loss to the Rays in 11 innings. “Sometimes, you go through those stretches, and nobody’s trying harder than they are.”
Toronto’s 3-4-5 hitters on Saturday — Jose Bautista, Kendrys Morales and Troy Tulowitzki — went a combined 2-for-13 with six strikeouts in the loss, and all are hitting under .200 on the season.
Hits were hard to come by on Saturday, as Toronto’s Aaron Sanchez and Tampa Bay’s Chris Archer put on quite a duel, allowing a combined three runs in 14 2/3 innings.
“It’s a fun atmosphere when you have two competitive guys out there, trying to keep zeros across the board,” Sanchez said.
Tampa Bay is 4-2, matching its best start in franchise history, but it still can improve at the plate, having won despite going 2-for-16 with runners in scoring position Saturday. The Rays pitching has been a key, with a team ERA of 3.38, even including an eight-run game Toronto had in a losing effort Friday night.
“Just excited we were able to pull it off,” Rays manager Kevin Cash said. “Two in a row, two games that we’ve won and had a tough time finding ways to win.”
The Rays turn to Jake Odorizzi on Sunday, trying to bounce back after taking the loss against the Yankees on Tuesday. Odorizzi has a 3.26 career ERA against Toronto with a 3-2 record, including a 1.35 ERA in four home starts against the Jays.
Toronto counters with fellow right-hander Marco Estrada, who took a no-decision in the season opener and has a 3.00 ERA. Estrada has something of a hard-luck history against the Rays, going 1-4 despite a 2.70 ERA, and is winless in five appearances at Tropicana Field despite a 2.82 ERA there.
The Rays will close out a seven-game home stand to open the season knowing they had a winning record in that stretch — amazingly, they didn’t have a winning record on any home stand last season until August.
The Rays have gotten a welcome spark from newcomers like outfielder Mallex Smith, who reached base all five times Saturday out of the No. 8 slot in the batting order, stealing two bases. He doubled to lead off the 11th and scored the winning run, making a strong impression in his first week with the team.
“I call that a blessed day right there,” Smith said. “You know that doesn’t happen every day, so when you have days like that, you’ve got to relish in them for the rest of the night. Just a good day progressively, taking steps forward and building confidence in my own game.”