The Blue Jays were forced to settle for a series split after right-hander Brandon Morrow allowed four runs over five innings and the offense was mostly shut down by Chris Archer in a 7-2 loss in the finale.
"I thought he labored tonight compared to what he did in Montreal the other day," Blue Jays manager John Gibbons said. "What I liked, is that I thought he finished strong. We still have to monitor him, because he's coming off those injuries last year. He battled but he wasn't hitting on his offspeed stuff."
The Blue Jays haven't won a series in Central Florida since April 6-8, 2007, and are now 0-19-2 since.
When the Blue Jays started the season in St. Petersburg earlier this week, manager John Gibbons described Tropicana Field as a "house of horrors" for his ballclub. That didn't really end up being the case this time, but even with a relatively strong series the streak lives on.
One of those road losses happened in Orlando, but the other 20 series all occurred at Tropicana Field. It's the longest skid since the Rays had 25 consecutive non-winning series at Fenway Park from 2000-08. Including home games, the Blue Jays have won just four series over their previous 37 against Tampa Bay, dating back to 2008.
This four-game series wasn't all bad, though, as the Blue Jays finished with a 2-2 record. They won back-to-back games on the road against Tampa Bay for just the second time since 2008, and are set to return home for their opener against the Yankees on a relatively even keel. For some in the Toronto clubhouse, it was mission accomplished considering the odds heading in to the series.
"I think a split is good coming out of here," said Morrow, who allowed seven hits and two walks. "It's tough, the first series of the year, we obviously would have loved to win this game. But it's still positive to come in and we played well for the most part."
Morrow struggled with his pitch count early as the Rays continuously found ways to grind out at-bats. He was at the 76-pitch mark by the end of the fourth inning and it became clear early on that he was going to be in for a relatively short night.
The 29-year-old allowed one run in the second, but most of the damage came in the third. The inning started with a sharp liner to right field off the bat of David DeJesus. Jose Bautista thought he could make a sliding play, but instead the ball bounced several feet in front of him and rolled all the way to the wall.
DeJesus ended up on third and scored when Desmond Jennings hit a soft chopper that bounced over the head of Brett Lawrie at third base. Two more runs eventually scored and Morrow walked away from the inning with a 4-0 deficit.
Toronto's No. 4 starter did eventually settle down, as he got through the rest of his outing without any further trouble. He retired eight of the final nine batters he faced and likely would have received an opportunity to pitch the sixth inning if it hadn't been his first start of the year.
Tampa put the game out of reach in the seventh inning when Esmil Rogers allowed a pair of runners to reach base. With two outs, Evan Longoria stepped to the plate and sent a 2-1 offering from Rogers over the wall in left field. Rogers was charged with all three of those runs on two hits and two walks over 1 2/3 innings. Even with their dominance over the Blue Jays in recent years, Tampa Bay also seemed happy with the split.
"I think I said it late in Spring Training, those guys aren't going to go away, it's not going to be easy," Longoria said. "To open up against them. They pitched really well. Sometimes you can't really simulate those things in Spring Training.
"It was good for us to get four games out of the way where we saw some good quality starting pitching and had to battle throughout every game we played against them. To come out with a split, you know, obviously, it's better than losing three out of four. That's a good quality ballclub. We played really well."
The Blue Jays lone spark on offense came during the fourth inning. Adam Lind doubled to put runners on second and third before Dioner Navarro hit a sacrifice fly and Brett Lawrie had an RBI single. Archer continued for six strong innings while allowing just the two runs on four hits while striking out seven.
In the ninth, Gibbons attempted to request a replay challenge after Lawrie was called out on a close play at first on a grounder to shortstop, but didn't make the request in time. By the time Gibbons ran onto the field, Rays pitcher Heath Bell had stepped onto the rubber and Maicer Izturis had stepped into the batter's box. That meant Gibbons' challenge wasn't valid, but it wouldn't have mattered because replays showed that Lawrie was indeed out on the play.
Toronto's biggest difficulty through its first series of the year was hitting with runners in scoring position. The Blue Jays are just 4-for-28 on the season and the end result has been scoring four runs or less in all four of those games.
Still the series isn't necessarily a disappointment, even with Thursday's results. The Blue Jays came in with the odds stacked against them and had to face David Price, Alex Cobb, Matt Moore and Archer. The four-game set was there for the taking, but in the end they'll gladly the split before opening up at home.
"We wanted to win tonight but against those four starters they threw at us to get two wins, we have to feel good," Gibbons said. "Especially after getting knocked around a bit after that first game. So we're going home feeling good."