TORONTO – In a year full of disappointment, the Toronto Blue Jays were left to focus on small victories as they closed out a regular season with games that became rather meaningless several weeks ago.
They were resigned to the role of spoiler and nearly put a significant dent in Tampa Bay’s post-season hopes on Sunday, with a furious comeback attempt coming just short as the Rays held on for a 7-6 victory.
Tampa Bay locked up a tiebreaker game appearance with the win. The Blue Jays, meanwhile, were packing their lockers after a last-place finish in the American League East.
The Rays jumped out to an early six-run lead but the Blue Jays would not give in. Toronto manager John Gibbons was impressed that his team refused to quit.
“The guys hung in there and we made a run late, they had a shot,” he said. “So I’m pretty proud of them for that.”
At the start of the day, Tampa Bay (91-71) and the Texas Rangers were one game behind the Cleveland Indians in the race for the two wild-card spots. Cleveland defeated the Minnesota Twins 5-1 to win the first wild card and Texas beat the Los Angeles Angels 6-2.
The Rays will play the Rangers in a tiebreaker game Monday afternoon.
Toronto (74-88) finished last in the A.L. East division and fell to 40-41 on the year at Rogers Centre. It was the first season since 2004 that Toronto had a sub-.500 record at home.
Expectations were high for the Blue Jays in 2013 after an off-season makeover. Injuries and underperformance prevented them from making strides and they barely improved on last season’s 73-89 record.
“It was difficult, the last two years actually,” said Toronto reliever Darren Oliver, who plans to retire. “But that’s why you play this game on the field, not on paper. Hopefully these guys can get it right one of these days because I think the fans are really hungry for a winning team. I mean I know if I was a fan, I would be.”
The Blue Jays have not been to the playoffs since winning the World Series in 1993.
“I always look at it any time you’re packing your stuff up and not playing in a post-season, it’s a wasted year. For me personally, obviously not for the organization,” said designated hitter Mark DeRosa. “A lot of good things happened for some young guys.
“But overall the ultimate goal was to win the A.L. East and find a way into the playoffs and we didn’t accomplish it so I would say it’s a disappointment.”
Blue Jays starter Todd Redmond (4-3) struck out David DeJesus to open the game before running into trouble. The Rays put six runs on the board in the inning.
Redmond recorded just two outs in the shortest start of his career.
Tampa Bay starter Matt Moore (17-4) struggled with his command in the first inning. He walked three batters but escaped unscathed by striking out DeRosa with two runners on base.
The Blue Jays chipped away at the lead in the sixth inning. DeRosa energized the crowd of 44,551 with a two-run double and later scored on a sacrifice fly by J.P. Arencibia.
Moore was pulled with one out in the frame. He allowed three earned runs, six hits, three walks and had four strikeouts.
Oliver received a standing ovation when he came out in the seventh inning. The 42-year-old left-hander retired the Rays in order.
In the bottom half of the frame, Jose Reyes scored on a one-out double by Brett Lawrie of Langley, B.C. Gose was held at third base and Joel Peralta relieved Jake McGee.
Peralta walked Moises Sierra to load the bases, drawing a visit by Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon. Home-plate umpire Paul Schrieber came to the mound and Maddon started to argue with him and was ejected.
Pinch-hitter Adam Lind then grounded into an inning-ending double play.
Maddon wouldn’t reveal whether he was upset about ball and strike calls, only saying “I had enough.” He did say he gave a message to his infielders.
“I said, ‘Listen. That’s it. I’m out of this game, I know you guys are going to be fine. I’m going to catch the rest of this game with a glass of wine in my hand and we’re going to win it.'”
Tampa Bay very nearly lost it.
The Blue Jays made it a one-run game in the eighth inning. Reyes drove in Ryan Langerhans with a single off Fernando Rodney and Gose followed with an RBI single of his own that scored Kevin Pillar.
Lawrie drew a two-out walk to load the bases but Moises Sierra followed with a strikeout.
The Blue Jays put a runner on in the ninth but Rodney got Ryan Goins on a lineout to end the game. It was Rodney’s 37th save of the year.
Gibbons gave several relievers some work on the final game of the season. Oliver, Wagner, Luis Perez, Chad Jenkins, Jeremy Jeffress, Steve Delabar and Sergio Santos all made appearances.
Now the focus will shift to general manager Alex Anthopoulos, who will likely have another busy off-season ahead. The players remained optimistic that they can bounce back in 2014.
“We had a lot of people that thought we were going to win the World Series,” Lawrie said. “But it takes a little bit of time to build chemistry. We had a little bit of trouble keeping some guys healthy, myself included. Reyes went down, the pitching staff went down a little bit. So you know, you’ve got to have your guys to make that push.”
Notes: The Toronto players came out of the dugout in the third inning to wave their hats in appreciation for the fans’ support this season. … A video of Oliver’s career highlights was played on the stadium big screen in the fourth inning. Oliver came out of the bullpen and stood on the warning track to watch. … The Blue Jays’ season attendance total rose to 2,536,562, an increase of 436,899 from 2012. … The game took three hours 21 minutes to play.