After winning a club-record 11 consecutive games to quickly climb the ladder in the AL East, the Toronto Blue Jays have stumbled against a pair of division opponents.
With the situation in the East beginning to coalesce around four teams, the Blue Jays and Tampa Bay Rays conclude their three-game series Wednesday at Tropicana Field.
The Blue Jays (38-35) entered play June 15 just one game out of first place, but in just over a week since, the Rays (41-32) have won six of nine to claim sole possession of the top spot. The New York Yankees are second, while Baltimore just took two of three in Toronto over the weekend to move to 7-5 against the Jays, who are now three games out.
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Tampa Bay improved to 7-2 versus Toronto with Tuesday’s 4-3 win. Chris Archer outworked Blue Jays knuckleballer R.A. Dickey to win his sixth straight decision, allowing three hits over eight innings.
Also enjoying his own streak is Toronto’s Marco Estrada (5-3, 3.92 ERA), who will try to win his fifth straight outing after beginning his time in the rotation with a five-start stretch May 5-27 in which he went 0-3 with a 5.02 ERA.
During his streak, the right-hander has lowered that mark to 3.96, allowing 11 earned runs with 20 strikeouts over 25 innings and a .223 opponent batting average.
Estrada carried a no-hitter into the eighth against Baltimore on Friday before a broken-bat blooper wrecked his bid leading off the inning. Toronto went on to win 5-3 for its ninth straight home victory.
"We knew the changeup was a big pitch for him," Orioles manager Buck Showalter said of Estrada, who threw a career-high 118 pitches. "He’s got great arm speed on it. It’s one of those that you can know it’s coming and still not get a good pass at it."
While he has never started against Tampa Bay, Estrada faced Rays hitters in a pair of relief appearances earlier this season that totaled 4 1-3 shutout innings with just two hits allowed. He is 0-1 with a 1.13 ERA against Tampa Bay.
Opposing Estrada will be rookie right-hander Nathan Karns (4-3, 3.53), who hasn’t been going deep into games – reaching the seventh only twice in 14 starts – but has been strong in his previous two with just two earned runs allowed over 11 1-3 innings.
In those outings, he held his own against Chicago White Sox ace Chris Sale on June 14 before outdueling Cleveland’s Carlos Carrasco on Friday to get his first win since May 13.
"Karnsy was really good," Rays manager Kevin Cash told MLB’s official website. "I thought after the first inning – he looked a little out of whack falling behind some guys, threw a couple of pitches you could tell he was a little out of sync, but credit to him (for) kind of developing and maturing into a pitcher here that he’s able to slow the game down a little bit and start making some pitches."
Karns earned the first win of his career in his only start against Toronto on Sept. 12, surrendering two hits over seven innings in a 1-0 victory. He’s allowed only a .201 batting average in seven starts against AL East opponents this season.
Gibbons said left-hander Brett Cecil is out as closer after allowing 10 earned runs over his last 5 2-3 innings. His likely replacement is righty Roberto Osuna, who struck out five over two innings in Monday’s 8-5 win for his first career save.