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Burnett shows off stuff in loss to Rays

Burnett shows off stuff in loss

ST. PETERSBURG -- The Blue Jays appear prepared to afford A.J. Burnett the final say about his future. The pitcher has been the subject of trade rumors over the last few weeks, though none have matured beyond speculation.

With the July 31 non-waiver Trade Deadline approaching, Burnett remains employed by the Blue Jays. On Friday night, he took the hill at Tropicana Field and absorbed a hard-luck loss in a 2-1 defeat to the resurgent Tampa Bay Rays, who have now won six of seven meetings with Toronto this season.

A lack of offense doomed Burnett, who sits one victory shy of his single-season high with the Jays.

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Prior to Burnett's outing against the Rays, Blue Jays general manager J.P. Ricciardi said he does not expect the pitcher to be dealt before the looming deadline.

"I don't see A.J. going anywhere," Ricciardi said. "There's never really been a lot of talks from other teams."

There were discussions with the Phillies, but their interest in Burnett undoubtedly waned after they acquired Joe Blanton this week. Earlier this season, Burnett admitted he'd accept being dealt to a contender like the Cubs "with open arms," but Chicago filled its need by trading for Rich Harden.

With CC Sabathia having been shipped to the Brewers, Burnett is arguably the top pitcher left on the trading block, though the list of suitors continues to decrease. Burnett has maintained that he's loyal to the Jays, and the club has answered by indicating that it hasn't been shopping him around.

In light of Ricciardi's latest comments, it appears that Burnett will control whether he stays in Toronto beyond this year. The Jays signed him to a five-year, $55 contract prior to the 2006 season, but the deal allows him to opt out after this season.

Burnett may be tempted to test his value on the free-agent, and he has a desire to pitch for a contender. This season, offensive issues have hindered Toronto's postseason aspirations, which had seemed realistic given its strong rotation.

Against the Rays, that storyline was again apparent. While spinning a gem, Burnett (10-9) was forced to work with just one run, courtesy of a third-inning solo homer off the bat of Adam Lind. That cushion proved inadequate, resulting in loss that Burnett said was "tough to swallow."

"I tried to keep my team in it as long as I could," Burnett said. "I just wanted to go out there and battle pitch-to-pitch and was just trying to throw up zeros. I got that one run, but there's nothing else to say."

All Burnett could say was that he regretted one errant pitch to Rays shortstop Ben Zobrist that essentially gave Toronto the loss . The game-changing sequence came with two outs in the seventh inning, when Toronto was clinging to its 1-0 advantage.

Burnett worked Eric Hinske into a 3-2 count, nearly striking out his former Jays teammate with a looping curveball. Hinske checked his swing just enough to avoid an inning-ending whiff and instead earn a crucial walk. Burnett isn't entirely convinced that Hinske didn't commit.

"I'm out there in the heat of the battle, so of course I [thought he swung]," Burnett said. "I haven't seen [a replay] or anything, but I thought he went. But you make your pitch after that."

Burnett's next pitch was a fastball targeted for the outside edge against Zobrist. Instead, the ball leaked back over the middle and Zobrist, who was sporting a .161 average since being summoned from the Minors on July 2, sent it hurtling into the right-field stands for a two-run homer.

"That was the only mistake all night," Burnett said. "One pitch determined the outcome of the whole game."

That was Burnett's take, but the fact was that Toronto's lineup couldn't mount much of anything against Rays right-hander James Shields (8-6), who improved to 4-0 in five career outings against the Jays. Shields tossed seven strong innings, with the lone blemish being Lind's home run.

Following Shields' exit, Toronto had an opportune chance in the eighth inning to tie the game and help Burnett avoid a loss. Lind opened the frame by reaching and advancing on a two-base throwing error by Zobrist.

Joe Inglett followed with a successful sacrifice bunt to move Lind to third base, but -- as has been the case for much of this season -- the Jays weren't able to capitalize. Marco Scutaro grounded out to first base and Alex Rios flailed at a 3-2 pitch out of the strike zone for a strikeout.

"He pitched a great ballgame for us," Blue Jays manager Cito Gaston said of Burnett. "We were just one hit ... or two hits away from scoring a couple runs. It was a great ballgame. We had a chance to tie it there in the eighth inning and we couldn't do it."

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

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