Stairs' blasts not enough for Jays

Stairs' blasts not enough for Jays

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- There's a vacant locker tucked in the back corner of the visitors' clubhouse at Disney's Wide World of Sports Complex. A Blue Jays hat and a handful of jerseys hang inside the stall, which has the name "Rolen" printed on a piece of paper taped above.

It's a reminder of Scott Rolen's continued absence from Toronto's roster, but also a sign that the third baseman is nearly ready to rejoin the club. Rolen's bat will certainly aid the Blue Jays' offense, which limped its way through a 5-3 loss to the Rays on Wednesday night.

Toronto's latest defeat spoiled a third consecutive complete game by ace Roy Halladay, and two homers off the bat of veteran Matt Stairs. The Jays struggled again to cash in on ample scoring opportunities -- an unfortunate trend that has plagued the lineup through the season's opening month.

There is hope that Rolen -- on the disabled list after breaking his right middle finger during the spring -- will be able to return to the lineup on Friday, when Toronto opens a three-game set on the road against the Royals. While Rolen isn't expected to be the cure for the Jays' woes, his presence could still give the team a lift.

"He's going to be a big influence for us," Halladay said. "Maybe it is coming at the right time. Regardless of how we're playing, I think we're all anxious to have him back. That's not a knock on the guys who have been filling in for him, it just says a lot about the kind of player he is."

Rolen aside, the Blue Jays (10-12) -- already short veteran Frank Thomas, who was released on Sunday -- were without the bats of right fielder Alex Rios and first baseman Lyle Overbay on Wednesday night. Prior to the game, Rios showed up with a bad case of the flu, and he spent the afternoon resting on a trainer's table with the hood from his sweatshirt pulled tightly over his head.

Blue Jays manager John Gibbons opted to send Rios back to the team's hotel, hoping the Jays' No. 3 hitter will be able to recover swiftly. Overbay was on Toronto's bench, but he was nursing a sore right ankle, which felt sore when he tried to run. Those losses made for a makeshift lineup that struggled to mount anything against the Rays.

"Right now, we have to keep our heads up," Stairs said. "We'll get Scotty back on Friday, or whenever he's coming back, and Rios will get back from being sick, and we'll get him swinging the bat well."

On this night, Stairs accounted for all of Toronto's offense with a pair of towering home runs off Tampa Bay starter Jason Hammel. In the second inning, Stairs pulled a 1-1 pitch for solo shot to open the frame, putting the Jays ahead, 1-0. In the sixth, Stairs once again sent a 1-1 offering arcing high to right -- this time for a two-run blast.

"We had the big night by Matty," Gibbons said. "You're hoping that holds up."

More often than not, a 3-0 lead in the sixth inning would provide more than a sufficient cushion for Halladay. Toronto's ace sliced his way through the Rays' lineup for five shutout innings, but Halladay hit more than a mere snag in the home half of the sixth. Tampa Bay (10-11) pounded out four runs on five hits in the decisive frame to claim a 4-3 advantage.

With runners on the corners and one out in the sixth, Halladay (2-3) yielded a run-scoring single to the Rays' Carl Crawford. Three batters later, Tampa Bay rookie Evan Longoria sent a pitch from Halladay to right field for a two-run single to knot the score at 3. Eric Hinske followed with an RBI single off Halladay to tilt the game in Tampa Bay's favor.

"When you get a three-run lead late in the game," Halladay said, "you can't afford to let it get away. There's no telling how many times you're going to get that chance and you just can't let it get away from you. It's a matter of making quality pitches when you have to."

Even so, there was still the issue of Toronto's offense. The Blue Jays went 0-for-7 with runners in scoring position, lowering their average to .119 under such circumstances over their past eight games. Toronto had runners on base in every inning minus the ninth, but was unable to take advantage.

"We have a chance to bury a team and we haven't done it," Stairs said. "The biggest thing right now is to not lower our heads, and to keep a positive attitude, knowing that it's going to come around. The good thing is it's 22 games into the season and we have a lot of games to make it up."

Halladay's three consecutive complete games mark the first time since September 2003 that he's had at least that many complete efforts in a row. Over this latest three-start stretch, though, he's managed a 1-2 record with just 2.3 runs of support. That type of offensive showing provides a slim margin for error.

"Obviously, innings like [the sixth] hurt more than the normally would," Halladay said. "If you give up five runs, it's not a quality outing. Regardless of how many you score, your job is still the same. You've still got to make pitches and you just can't really let that be a factor."

Jordan Bastian is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.