Hill's offering not enough for Blue Jays

Hill's offering not enough for Blue Jays

ST. PETERSBURG -- The baseball jumped off Aaron Hill's bat in a hurry, rocketing over left field on a low arc before crashing into the stands at Tropicana Field. The second baseman watched the ball clear the fence before settling into a swift jog around the bases.

It was a third-inning home run that pushed the Blue Jays to an early lead and added to what has been a remarkable season for Hill. He has been an offensive force all season long for Toronto, but for all the fireworks Hill has provided, it has often not been enough. Such was the case again in the Jays' 8-3 loss to the Rays on Saturday night.

In another year, Hill might be able to fully enjoy the breakout campaign. The way things have gone for the Blue Jays over the past few months, though, the second baseman admits that it has been hard to really enjoy his on-field success.

"It [stinks], man. It does," Hill said. "You're here to win. That's why anyone does anything -- to succeed. It's nice doing personal stuff, but any time you walk away with a loss, it really doesn't matter."

On this evening, the missteps by the Blue Jays' pitching staff made Hill's two-run blast matter little in the end. Toronto left-hander Brian Tallet surrendered five runs before being pulled with two outs in the sixth inning and relievers Josh Roenicke and Brandon League combined to allowed three runs late in the game.

By the eighth inning, Toronto (55-60) faced an 8-3 deficit and the 2-0 lead that Hill provided with one violent swing against Rays lefty Scott Kazmir was a distant memory. With one out in the first, Hill jumped on a 1-2 slider from Kazmir, sending the pitch to left for his team-leading 28th home run of the season.

The 28 home runs by Hill are not only a career high, and not only the most in a single season by a Blue Jays second baseman, but the most in franchise history over one campaign by a middle infielder. Hill has clubbed more homers by an American League second baseman since Alfonso Soriano belted 35 with Texas in 2005.

The two RBIs that Hill -- named to his first All-Star team this season -- collected with his homer gave him 80 on the season, establishing a new career high. All around, it has been an impressive showing from Hill, who missed most of the 2008 season after suffering a serious concussion at the end of May. That aspect of Hill's year is something he has not had trouble appreciating.

"I still want to keep it in perspective that I am blessed to be back in a uniform," Hill said.

For a brief moment early in Saturday's contest against the Rays (62-54), it felt as though Hill's homer might hold up. Kazmir was shaky in the early innings and Tallet (5-7) opened his outing by retiring the first seven hitters he faced in order. In the home half of the third, though, Tallet began to unravel against Tampa Bay's strong lineup.

Over a span of six hitters with one out in the third inning, the Rays collected four runs on five hits and one walk. The rally only came to a close when Hill -- one of the league's top defenders at his position -- completed a double play, narrowly throwing out Carlos Pena at first base after receiving a relay from shortstop Marco Scutaro.

The Rays ran their advantage to 5-2 with a run off Tallet in the fifth inning, but the Jays had chance to swing the momentum in their favor in the seventh. Toronto loaded the bases with no outs against Kazmir (7-7), who allowed a run-scoring fielder's choice groundout before being pulled. Rays reliever Russ Springer then retired Marco Scutaro and Hill in order to end the threat.

"He had good stuff tonight," Blue Jays manager Cito Gaston said of Kazmir, who struck out seven en route to the win. "Of course, we didn't pitch as well and we didn't hit as well."

That sums up the way things have been going for the Jays.

On May 18, Toronto resided in first place in the American League East with a 27-14 record. Since then, the offense has sputtered, the pitching staff has been ravaged by injuries and the Jays have gone 28-46 to drop to fourth place in the division.

"Everything went our way," said Hill, referring to the Jays' hot start. "I mean, we were hitting, we were pitching, guys were making big plays, big hits, big pitches. I'd love if that would happen for six months straight, but I guess baseball caught up with us. They made the adjustments, and we just haven't made the right ones back. I don't know. There's really no explanation.

"That proved what we could do and what kind of impact we could have on our league, because it is a tough league and that's what's going to have to happen for us to be successful in the East. It's unfortunate the way things have gone the last few months."

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