TORONTO — Kevin Gregg is one of the reasons the Toronto Blue Jays have been able to make a season of low expectations far more interesting than anyone imagined.
Lately, though, he’s made the ninth inning an adventure a little too often.
The closer’s penchant for trouble caught up with him in a big way Tuesday night, as he walked five batters and allowed just one hit, a pivotal three-run double by Sean Rodriguez, that allowed the Tampa Bay Rays to rally for a 7-6 victory.
The too-crazy-to-believe ninth erased a 5-3 advantage for the Blue Jays (31-23), who were set to wrap up a fifth straight victory at the start of a tough stretch of schedule, and their second in a row versus the AL East leaders before a crowd of 13,439.
Brian Tallet came off the disabled list to throw 5 2-3 scoreless innings, Adam Lind and John Buck each knocked in a pair of runs while Fred Lewis homered in the first and fell a triple short of the cycle. But some shaky bullpen work frittered away a comfortable five-run lead, and set the stage for Gregg’s third blown save in 17 chances this season.
“Walking that many guys in an inning is not going to work,” said Gregg, who has blown two of his last four save chances. “It’s not appropriate.”
Gregg’s frustration boiled over as he walked off the field after throwing 40 pitches, 26 of them balls, getting ejected for criticizing umpire Angel Hernandez’s strike zone. He then became even more irate and the six-foot-six right-hander had to be physically restrained by 5-10 bench coach Nick Leyva, who looked like a midget trying to hold off a sumo wrestler.
“Technically I’m probably not supposed to comment on the strike zone, you can watch the game and see how things dictated,” said Gregg, who hasn’t had a three-up, three-down inning since May 9, a span of nine outings. “All we ask is that it’s consistent throughout the game and consistent in the ninth inning.
“I made a lot of pitches that I thought were right there. They did a good job taking some of them and I just got to keep executing my pitches, and things typically work out in my favour. Tonight they didn’t.”
Gregg (0-2) issued one-out walks to Carl Crawford (who he later had picked off at second base but threw the ball into centre field for an error) and Evan Longoria, and two-out passes to John Jaso and Ben Zobrist before Rodriguez’s blow.
Another walk to Dioner Navarro ended Gregg’s night, and his ejection followed. It was Hernandez’s second ejection of the inning, after giving Tampa manager Joe Maddon the boot earlier when he argued as Carlos Pena took a third strike while trying to call for time.
There was yet another twist in the bottom of the ninth, when Vernon Wells missed a game-tying homer by a foot, settling for an RBI double that was too little too late versus Rafael Soriano. He recovered for his 15th save while Grant Balfour improved to 1-1 for the Rays (35-18), who narrowly avoided a seventh loss in nine games.
“It’s a tough loss because you’re playing a first place team,” said Blue Jays manager Cito Gaston. “When you have a lead that late in the ball game, you’ve got to shut it down, you’ve got to beat them.”
Tallet was making his first start since April 17, when he began experiencing some soreness in his left forearm. The left-handed swingman was placed on the DL a day later and was activated to plug a hole in the rotation after a couple of so-so rehab outings.
But after surviving some early troubles with his command — he walked three in the first two innings — Tallet settled down and held the Rays to just four hits. He began hitting his spots and induced weak contact, outduelling tough sophomore Jeff Niemann.
“Pleasantly great,” was how Tallet said his arm felt, adding he’d had shoulder problems in the spring, followed by the forearm troubles. “It’s been a while since I’ve been fully healthy.”
Niemann hadn’t allowed more than three earned runs in any of his previous 10 starts and seemed to have settled after allowing Lewis’s solo shot in the first. But the Blue Jays broke through for a three-spot in the fifth on Buck’s solo shot and a two-run triple by Lind, and then made it 5-0 in the sixth when Buck’s sacrifice fly brought home Alex Gonzalez.
Lind, Buck and utility infielder Mike McCoy all took extra batting practice before the game off pitching coach Bruce Walton, whose sessions have become a slump-busting must. Buck and Aaron Hill both emerged from funks after hitting against Walton earlier this season.
The Rays pulled themselves back into it in the seventh against Casey Janssen and Jason Frasor, getting an RBI double from Reid Brignac and run-scoring singles from Crawford and Pena before Camp shut the door.
The Rays lost their designated hitter in this one when Maddon moved Willy Aybar from DH to second base for the seventh inning. Maddon needed to make a double-switch later in the frame to keep the pitcher from batting.
“It was like we got kicked right down,” said Buck. “Those are ones you want to avoid giving away but you’re going to have them, keep them to a minimum.”
Notes: What’s the secret behind Walton’s batting practice sessions? “Papi’s got a pretty good arm, he was throwing it up there pretty hard,” said Lind. “I was working on being on time. That’s where a lot of my problems have been this year, being behind the pitcher.” Lind says he’s felt lost since homering against Ervin Santana on April 18. “I started off good then I just lost it,” said Lind. “I hit that homer and then the next day, it was gone.” ... Jays right-hander Scott Richmond of North Vancouver, B.C., made a rehab start at extended spring, throwing 4 2-3 scoreless innings, striking out nine. He’s working his way back from shoulder soreness. ... The Blue Jays acquired minor-league righty Ronald Uviedo from Pittsburgh for lefty Dana Eveland and assigned the 23-year-old to double-A. ... Jose Bautista is the Blue Jays Honda Player of the Month for May as chosen by the Toronto chapter of the BBWAA. He tied a club record with 12 home runs.