Toronto squanders late chances in loss
Wells' final strikeout emblematic of Jays' clutch-hitting woes
TORONTO -- Vernon Wells saw his pitch. With two outs in the ninth inning on Saturday, Marlins closer Matt Lindstrom sent a 98-mph fastball drifting over the plate. The Blue Jays center fielder locked in, swung hard and proceeded to foul the baseball back into the stands.
One pitch later, Wells went down swinging. He walked slowly back to the dugout, while a disappointed crowd sent a spatter of boos in the center fielder's direction as it headed for the Rogers Centre exits. Wells' strikeout came with a runner on base and brought a disheartening conclusion to a 6-5 Interleague loss to Florida.
That's just the way it has been going lately for Wells, who is mired in an ugly slump.
"That's one thing that, going through this period," Wells said, "when I'm getting my pitch, I seem to be fouling them back instead of hitting them hard."
That has contributed to what has grown into perhaps the most frustrating period of Wells' career.
"Pretty much," Wells said. "It's amazing. I feel like I'm seeing the ball fine. It's just I'm not squaring the ball up."
There were a few positives to be sifted from the latest loss for the Blue Jays (34-30). Following a shaky outing from right-hander Casey Janssen, who exited with two outs in the fourth inning after giving up five runs, Toronto's offense used home runs from Alex Rios and Lyle Overbay to nearly overcome an early hole. Rios -- fighting some recent struggles of his own -- finished with four hits in the game.
It was hard to ignore the persistent offensive woes for Wells, though.
Wells finished 0-for-5, stretching his hitless streak to 14 at-bats. He ended three innings with outs and came up to the plate with runners on base on four occasions. Wells' unproductive evening also extended his homerless drought to 134 at-bats, representing the longest power outage of his 11-year career. In 2002, Wells went 131 at-bats without a homer from April 16-May 28.
"You've got to hit the ball hard to hit a home run," Wells said with a shrug. "That hasn't really been happening too often. So, I'll continue to work and continue to try to get better and this thing will turn around."
Blue Jays manager Cito Gaston had done his part in trying to pull Wells out of his slump. Gaston has penciled Wells' name into the lineup for each of Toronto's 64 games, continuing to show confidence in the center fielder. On Friday, Gaston finally juggled his regular order, moving Wells out of the cleanup spot and into the third hole.
So far, nothing had worked.
"He's struggling bad," Gaston said. "All you can do is keep sending him out there and get some [batting practice] and hope that he comes out of it."
After his latest showing, Wells' average dropped to .241 to go along with his five home runs and 28 RBIs. Since last belting a home run during his second at-bat of a win over the Angels on May 6, Wells has hit .201 with seven RBIs in a period that covers 35 games. In the 34 games since Wells last cleared the fence, the Jays have posted a 14-20 record.
It's to the point where Gaston believes the slump might be more mental than anything else.
"This game is all about that," Gaston said. "It's more mental than it is physical. People don't realize it sometimes, but you can get into a mental slump quicker than you get in a physical slump."
Wells has battled problems with his hamstrings, left wrist and left shoulder over the past few years, but both he and Gaston insisted there is no physical issue bothering the center fielder.
"Aside from my swing? No," said Wells, who signed a seven-year extension worth $126 million with the Jays prior to the 2007 season.
As far as Wells' swing, Gaston said he believes the primary problem is that the outfielder is beginning his swing too late. Wells said that he has exhausted all possible solutions, adding that continuing to tinker with his mechanics would be counter-productive.
"There's been a lot of video. A lot of talking. A lot of extra swings," Wells said. "I think, right now, it's just a matter of sticking to the same thing. It's hard to get consistent with something when you keep trying to change things. It's a matter of just trying to keep the same approach."
After Rios experienced similar struggles, Gaston moved the right fielder from the lineup's third spot and placed him the sixth role. In the fourth inning on Saturday, Rios belted the first pitch he received from Marlins starter Sean West deep to left field for a two-run home run. That blast cut the Blue Jays' deficit down to 5-2.
Overbay added a two-run shot of his own in the fourth inning and Toronto added a fifth run in the seventh, courtesy of an error by Marlins third baseman Wes Helms. With runners on first and second base, Wells chopped a pitch to Helms, who threw the ball wildly into right field to allow Marco Scutaro to score from second for the Blue Jays.
At the point, the Marlins (31-33) clung to a 6-5 advantage -- thanks largely to the early home runs Janssen surrendered to Jeremy Hermida and Cody Ross. The Blue Jays had a chance to knot the score in the eighth, when Rios singled and stole second base to open the frame. Rios was caught trying to steal third base, though, and Overbay and Jose Bautista struck out to halt the rally.
In the bottom of the ninth inning, as was the case a few times against the Marlins, Wells had a chance to swing the game in Toronto's favor, too. He wasn't able to deliver, adding another chapter to what has been an excruciating period for the center fielder.
"We're supporting him," Rios said. "He's going through a stretch that every single one of us have been through -- I've been there many times. He's going to get there. He's going to start doing good."
There is still plenty of season for Wells to do just that.
"Yeah, there is," Wells said. "I think that's one of the things you can look at, but you never want to keep saying, 'There's plenty of time. There's plenty of time.' It's August before you know it. I've got to start swinging the bat better -- that's the bottom line."
Jordan Bastian is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.