The expectations changed when the Blue Jays rolled over New York and Boston with relatively little difficulty. More of the same was expected to happen at Minute Maid Park, but instead Toronto heads home on a three-game losing streak after Marcus Stroman had the shortest outing of his career in a 6-1 loss to the Astros on Sunday.
"It was a good road trip, it could have been a great one, but we have a welcome day off tomorrow and then we play the team we're chasing," Blue Jays manager John Gibbons said in reference to an upcoming three-game set vs. Baltimore.
Instead of finishing strong, the Blue Jays limped to the end after playing 10 games in 10 days. There was serious danger of that happening in the series finale, but if the Blue Jays were going to salvage a split of the series, they couldn't have asked for a more appropriate pitcher to do it than Stroman.
Stroman has been Toronto's best pitcher for the past five weeks and was coming off a month in which he posted a sparkling 1.71 ERA. He allowed one run over his previous 21 innings entering play vs. the Astros and has been borderline dominant during his rookie season.
The effectiveness was there early as Stroman cruised through the first two innings. He looked sharp and retired the first seven batters he faced until his issues began with one out in the third. It started with a single by rookie Jake Marisnick and continued as Stroman eventually loaded the bases with two outs.
Stroman had an opportunity to escape the inning without any damage as he got ahead 0-2 to No. 3 hitter Chris Carter. Stroman wasn't able to finish him off though and after the count went full, Carter hit a two-run single to left.
The problems continued in the fourth as Houston recorded four consecutive hits before Stroman was chased from the game. Stroman was charged with all five of those runs on seven hits and one walk while striking out one.
"I kind of didn't have anything, everything was kind of up," Stroman said. "I'd get ahead in counts and I'd have trouble putting guys away, where normally I'd be able to get those pitches down in the zone for punchouts. It was a tough one, I'm not discouraged just looking forward to the next one, kind of put this one in the past."
Toronto's offense continued its recent struggles but for the third consecutive game it had an opportunity to pile on runs early only to come up empty-handed. The Blue Jays had runners on second and third in the second and loaded the bases in the third, but they managed to score just one run.
That has been the trend since Friday night. Prior to that, the Blue Jays had scored four runs in 10 consecutive games, but they have now tallied four runs over their last 27 innings. Astros right-hander Scott Feldman deserved some of the credit on Sunday as he got out of the early jams and allowed one run over nine innings.
"It is hard, if we don't score runs, we're not going to win," Blue Jays shortstop Jose Reyes said. "We had a lot of opportunities to score a lot of runs, we weren't able to get the key hit. It's tough to win ballgames like that."
The Blue Jays will have one day to recover before starting another crucial set of games. Toronto will host Baltimore and Detroit before heading out on the road for a three-game series against Seattle.
All three of those series involve teams that are competing for a spot in the postseason. Baltimore and Seattle in particular are two teams the Blue Jays will have to handle if they want to take a stranglehold on either the AL East or at the very least the second Wild Card spot.
In other words, they need to quickly forget about Houston. They have other problems to worry about.
"We've been playing good baseball," Gibbons said. "The last three games didn't go our way, pure and simple. But we have a nice off-day tomorrow and we play the teams that matter. Baltimore, then Detroit and Seattle, three really good teams ... we'll have a little bit better idea where we're at after that."