McGowan was sending 98-mph fastballs popping into the glove of Toronto catcher Gregg Zaun, and the young starter had the Rays downright baffled. Then, as the evening wore on, McGowan simply unraveled, and the Blue Jays followed suit in a 5-3 defeat to Tampa Bay at Disney's Champion Stadium.
In a game that served as a summation of Toronto's recent woes, the Jays had their pitching go awry, watched sure-handed second baseman Aaron Hill make a rare blunder in the field and mounted minimal offense. The result was a fourth straight loss for the Jays, who found only nightmares in the Land of a Million Dreams.
"Loss of concentration, I guess you could say," said McGowan, who was at a loss for words after his latest performance. "It's frustrating and it's embarrassing, but I'll work through it."
McGowan had no issues handling Tampa Bay's lineup for the opening two frames, striking out five and yielding no hits over that span. That early showing had Zaun reminiscing about last June 24, when McGowan carried a no-hitter into the ninth inning against the Rockies.
"I think the stuff he had in the first two innings was even better than what we looked at that day," Zaun said.
This time, the early success turned out to be nothing more than a tease.
With the Jays (10-13) leading 2-0 in the third inning, McGowan opened the frame by issuing a leadoff walk to Rays catcher Dioner Navarro, who later scored. In the fourth, McGowan surrendered a one-out triple to Tampa Bay's Evan Longoria, who then crossed home plate on a single by Eric Hinske, knotting the score, 2-2.
McGowan (1-2) also loaded the bases with three consecutive walks in the third, but managed to escape that jam without any further damage. The same couldn't be said about the fifth inning, when McGowan once again put three Rays runners aboard -- this time courtesy of two walks and a single to lead things off.
At that point, Gibbons decided it was time to pull McGowan, who had issued a career-high seven walks against the Rays (11-11), and finished with 44 balls against 43 strikes in four-plus innings. Gibbons was hard-pressed to pinpoint a precise reason behind McGowan's collapse.
"That's as good as you can be for the first couple innings," Gibbons said. "Then he just lost the strike zone. I don't know. It's hard to say [why it happened], but he lost it big time."
Zaun was similarly stumped by McGowan's outing.
"You've go to throw strikes," Zaun said. "Especially when you have dominating-type stuff like he has. It's no good to us when it's not in the zone. Early in the game, he was all over the plate and he was challenging some guys in the strike zone with everything.
"Then, all of a sudden, he just kind of lost his feel. It happens."
With the bases loaded, Longoria chipped in a run-scoring sacrifice fly off Toronto reliever Brian Tallet that once again tied the score -- this time by a count of 3-3. Tallet then induced a ground ball off the bat of Hinske, who sent the pitch bouncing toward Hill, setting up a tailor-made inning-ending double play.
Hill gloved the grounder cleanly, but threw it high above second base, where shortstop David Eckstein stretched and snared the ball out of the air. The throw pulled Eckstein off the bag, though, and both runners were safe, leading to one run for the Rays on the play. By the time the inning was over, Toronto had slipped behind, 5-3.
"That's the way things have been going, really," said Gibbons, referring to Hill's rare gaffe. "He just threw it wide and it took David off the bag."
Still, Toronto had its chances.
Marco Scutaro's RBI single off Tampa Bay starter Andy Sonnanstine in the third inning represented the lone hit in 10 chances with runners in scoring position. That showing dropped Toronto's average in such circumstances to .117 over the club's past nine games, in which they've gone 2-7 with an average of 3.2 runs per game.
Toronto scored its second run on Thursday courtesy of a mental error by Navarro, who strolled to the mound without calling for a timeout in the third inning, allowing Zaun to scoot home from second base on a sacrifice bunt by Eckstein. The Jays plated a third run in the fifth, when Hill scored from third on a wild pitch.
The Jays did manage to put their first two runners on base to lead off the ninth inning, though both were ultimately stranded. For a brief moment, Zaun looked to have launched a three-run homer with no outs in the ninth, but the baseball died in the air and fell harmlessly into the glove of right fielder Gabe Gross for an out.
"I can't hit a ball any harder than that last one," Zaun said with a shrug. "That's a ball, when it left my bat, I thought, 'That's a three-run homer.' I knew I got that one and it didn't go anywhere."
Zaun's final sentiment seemed to sum up the series.
Jordan Bastian is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.