That upped the importance of Toronto's current road trip that includes series against the American League East-leading Rays and the Yankees. On Thursday night, the Blue Jays slipped to a 3-2 loss against Tampa Bay and now head to New York with two straight series losses in their rearview mirror.
Less than a week ago, the Blue Jays had an opportunity to pull within six games of the top spot in the AL Wild Card race, but the club came up short against the Red Sox and, instead, fell eight games back. Tampa Bay increased Toronto's deficit to nine games this week, issuing the Jays a harsh reality check.
"We were in a race and that's a first-place club," said Blue Jays starter Jesse Litsch, referring to the Rays. "You want to go out there and beat them all the time, but we've got a long month left. Hopefully, we can pick it up from here and get out there after everyone else again."
It was an old habit -- a lack of production with situational hitting -- that doomed the Blue Jays (68-65) on Thursday evening. Toronto was blanked for the first seven innings before finally managing a pair of runs in the eighth. That was hardly enough run support for Litsch's respectable effort to hold up against the Rays (81-51).
Similar to Wednesday night, when Toronto rookie David Purcey spun a gem and still walked away with a loss, the Jays' bats went quiet for Litsch. Purcey received no runs to work with during his complete-game effort, resulting in a 1-0 defeat. The lone mistake by Purcey was a solo home run off the bat of Tampa Bay's Carlos Pena.
Litsch had already exited the game by the time Toronto found home plate on Thursday and, once again, the solo home run did the Jays in. In the third inning, Rays designated hitter Cliff Floyd crushed a hanging 0-1 curveball for a solo homer. Willy Aybar followed suit with a solo shot off a misplaced 0-2 sinker in the sixth to put the Jays behind, 3-0.
"I made a couple mistake pitches," Litsch said with a shrug. "They kind of hit them over the fence. Those are solo home runs and they're going to beat you -- not all the time, but tonight they beat me.
"I left the ball over the middle to Aybar and he got all of it. Floyd was a curveball I just left up and over the middle. If it's down, it's probably a different story."
On the whole, though, Litsch (9-8) turned in a decent performance. He finished with 6 2/3 innings, during which he allowed 10 hits and finished with two strikeouts and no walks. The showing will go down as a quality start -- Litsch's 10th of the season -- but it was also be a loss in light of Toronto's struggles against Edwin Jackson.
Jackson (11-8) logged seven shutout frames, and then watched from the bench as Rays reliever Chad Bradford allowed an inherited runner to score in the eighth. That tagged one earned run on Jackson's line, though he's still only relinquished three runs to Toronto's lineup over his last two starts against the club.
"You'd like to win it," Blue Jays manager Cito Gaston said. "But, I think you have to give those guys some credit over there -- they have a pretty good pitching staff. The guys came back and battled a bit, but it was just a little too late."
In the eighth inning, Alex Rios doubled off Jackson and later scored when Adam Lind drove a pitch from Bradford into center field. Two batters later, Jays catcher Rod Barajas drilled an offering from reliever Grant Balfour into the right-center-field gap for a run-scoring double, cutting the Rays' lead to 3-2.
Prior to that rally, the Jays put at least one runner on base in six of the first seven innings, stranding eight in the process. In the sixth inning, Toronto had runners on the corners with no outs, but Jackson escaped the threat -- reminiscent of the Jays' offensive struggles early in the season.
"We did have one situation with a man on first and third and we couldn't punch that run across," Gaston said. "We've got to score more than two runs sometimes and give [the pitchers] a break."
Jordan Bastian is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.