Jays' frustrating season ends in extras

Jays' frustrating season ends in extras

BALTIMORE -- Blue Jays manager Cito Gaston made his way around the visitors' clubhouse at Camden Yards on Sunday morning, shaking hands with his players and sharing a few words before everyone went their separate ways for the offseason.

On the field, the Blue Jays went out and slipped to a 5-4 loss in 11 innings to the Orioles to wrap up a tumultuous series and a disappointing season. In three days in Baltimore, Toronto responded to reports that the players were feuding with Gaston, parted ways with its general manager and absorbed a three-game sweep along the way.

"We didn't play well over here," Gaston said. "I guess it goes along with everything else that happened."

It was an unfortunate way to end a season that was not without its bright spots for the ballclub, though there is no doubt that the Blue Jays did not finish how they would have hoped. Toronto ended the 2009 campaign in fourth place in the American League East with a 75-87 record, marking the club's first losing season since 2005.

The Blue Jays now head into a crucial offseason -- under the guidance of new general manager Alex Anthopoulos -- with plans on determining a direction for the organization. Toronto is expected to hire a permanent president and CEO this offseason and the club will need to decide whether to enter into a rebuilding phase or try to contend next year.

At the heart of the winter maneuvering will be dealing with the situation surrounding Blue Jays ace Roy Halladay, who is eligible for free agency after 2010. If Toronto does not feel it can make a run at the postseason next year, the team may explore trading Halladay in the coming months. The Jays also have to decide whether to retain free agents Rod Barajas, Marco Scutaro and John McDonald.

"Alex has got his hands full," Gaston said.

After assuming the duties of former general manager J.P. Ricciardi on Saturday, Anthopoulos expressed optimism about the club's future. Much of that is based on the handful of positives that can be sifted from the wreckage of this forgettable season. Aaron Hill and Adam Lind developed into one of the game's top offensive duos and a handful of young pitchers kept a depleted staff from falling apart.

Leading the large cast of youthful arms was rookie Ricky Romero, who took the mound against the Orioles (64-98) in the finale. In seven innings, Romero allowed four runs on five hits, ending with eight strikeouts in a no-decision. After nearly being sent back to Minor League camp early in the spring, Romero won a rotation job and went on to tie a club record with 13 wins by a Jays rookie.

"I gained a lot of experience and learned a lot," Romero said. "It's disappointing not to come up with a win today, but that's the way baseball is. It's kind of weird. You just never know if this team is ever going to be the same again. That's the way the game goes. Some guys are free agents. You never know what's going to happen. It's been a fun ride with all these guys."

Toronto used three home runs -- one each from Edwin Encarnacion, Jose Bautista and McDonald against Baltimore's Jeremy Guthrie -- to help pull the game into a 4-4 tie through seven innings. After Romero's exit, a pair of throwing errors by Blue Jays reliever Brandon League in the 11th led to the game's decisive run, sealing one final defeat for Toronto.

"Obviously, we're disappointed that we couldn't do better," Romero said. "But it was a good year."

That was the message coming from all corners of the clubhouse.

Two days after leaked reports claimed that there was "mutiny" among the Jays players, and one day following the removal of the general manager, it was a loose atmosphere around the team. In the hours before the game, a stereo blared Bob Marley songs while the players and coaches joked around for one last time in 2009.

Gaston said on Sunday that he was feeling much better about the clubhouse situation after referring to Friday as one of the worst days of his baseball life. Barajas again indicated that there were some small issues that the players wanted to get off their chest -- problems that may have been exaggerated in reports.

Blue Jays interim president and CEO Paul Beeston met with players to talk about the matter on Saturday and everyone involved seemed less on edge by Sunday afternoon.

"This group is amazing," said Hill, who ended the season hitting .286 with 36 home runs and 108 RBIs. "How well it's put together, how well we play together, how well everyone blends together, it makes a lot of things easy to deal with -- whether good or bad -- when you have a clubhouse like this."

Despite all the events that took place throughout the season -- releasing former closer B.J. Ryan; letting right fielder Alex Rios go to the White Sox in a waiver claim; watching Halladay trade talks turn into a media circus in July; and having Vernon Wells' struggles hinder the offense -- the Blue Jays tried to conclude this year focusing on the good.

"A lot of positives came out," Hill said. "We do have a solid group of young guys and I think they're only going to get better. You hope that they come into the offseason and realize how good they are and how good they can be and just keep building on what they did this year."

It was a year that was expected to be difficult for the Jays, who lost pitcher A.J. Burnett to free agency last winter and entered the season with a young, inexperienced rotation. Things changed when the Jays bolted out to a 27-14 record. All of a sudden, a belief was born that Toronto might be able to compete in the division.

That made the mess that followed harder to take.

"We got out of the gates really well," McDonald said. "I think that changed everybody's perspective a little bit. Then, we came back down to earth and we went through the growing pains of playing in the American League East with a young pitching staff, and we didn't swing the bats as well as we could.

"But, we still had an awful lot of fun."

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