TORONTO — The Toronto Blue Jays want to put a couple of series losses behind them as they head out for a 10-game road trip that should give them a good idea of whether they’re actually ready to be a contender in the American League East.
Toronto dropped a 7-2 decision to the Minnesota Twins on Wednesday afternoon, with only a pair of late runs preventing a second straight shutout loss.
Josh Willingham belted a two-run homer in the first inning and Kendrys Morales hit a bases-clearing double in the seventh as the Twins took the rubber game of the three-game series. Twins starter Phil Hughes (7-2) struck out nine and allowed seven hits over seven shutout innings.
With the loss, Toronto’s lead atop the division standings fell to five games over Baltimore and New York. The Orioles were home to Boston on Wednesday night while the Yankees were in Seattle.
The Blue Jays will play Baltimore and New York next week before closing out their trip against the Cincinnati Reds.
“We’ll see how good we are,” said Toronto manager John Gibbons. “We’re playing a couple good teams in our division. We’ve got a small little lead on them but they’re right there. So we need to play good baseball on this road trip, especially the way the last four or five games have gone.
“For our psyche more than anything else we need to regroup and put a couple good ball games together.”
Toronto (39-28) has been giving up early leads of late, with the opposition scoring first for the seventh straight time Wednesday.
Danny Santana opened the game with a single off Marcus Stroman (3-1), who was making his third career start. The leadoff man scored when Willingham turned on a 1-2 pitch and put it into the second deck.
“It was just a bad pitch,” Stroman said. “It was probably the worst pitch of the outing. It was just one of those that was supposed to be buried but it just kind of hung up there. I tried to do too much with it.”
The Blue Jays starter allowed three earned runs and nine hits while striking out four. Triple-A callup Bobby Korecky replaced him in the seventh and loaded the bases before Morales cleared them with a three-run double.
Toronto avoided the embarrassment of a fourth shutout loss in five games by scratching out a pair of runs in the eighth. Casey Fien got the last four outs for his first save of the season.
“There’s no doubt we’ve cooled off with the bats,” Gibbons said. “But that can turn in one day, that can turn overnight. But I do think it’s going to be good to get out on the road.
“We’ve been at home a long time. A little change of pace, a little change of scenery might do us some good.”
The Blue Jays led several offensive categories last month and, despite the recent cold stretch, have won 16 of their last 22 games and 21 of 29.
“The bats are going to come around,” Stroman said. “All the guys in the clubhouse are pretty positive about it. I have 100 per cent confidence in every single guy in that lineup that the guys are going to start doing what they were doing at the beginning of the year. It’s close.”
The Twins, meanwhile, moved two games under the .500 mark with the win. Minnesota (31-33) outhit Toronto 16-10 while Hughes picked up his ninth quality start of the season.
“Super job by him of changing speeds, moving the ball in and out,” said Twins manager Ron Gardenhire. “He used his breaking ball a lot better today.”
Hughes did well to get out of a jam in the sixth inning after Toronto shortstop Jose Reyes extended his hitting streak to 12 games with an infield single. Reyes moved to third base on a Melky Cabrera single to put runners on the corners with nobody out.
Oswaldo Arcia made a nice sliding catch in foul territory on a Jose Bautista flyout and Hughes struck out Edwin Encarnacion and Adam Lind to escape.
“I felt like I kind of found myself in the third or fourth inning and was able to ride that through,” Hughes said.
The Blue Jays fell to 20-17 at home this season. They have been much stronger away from Rogers Centre this year and at 19-11, have the fewest road losses in the major leagues.