08/26/09 12:18 AM ET
Hill's 30th not enough in Jays loss
Rookie Cecil struggles in face of Rays' hot offense
By Jordan Bastian / MLB.com
As has been the case throughout this season, Hill provided some fireworks that were lost in the wake of a disappointing defeat. Following Toronto's 7-3 loss to Tampa Bay at Rogers Centre, Hill sat reclined in his chair in front of his locker, wearing a look of frustration. The Jays' slide in the standings has made it hard for Hill to enjoy his performance.
With more than a month left on the schedule, Hill has already pieced together the best season of his promising career. His third-inning blast off Rays right-hander James Shields was the 30th home run of the year for the second baseman -- a milestone that went wasted in light of the struggles of rookie starter Brett Cecil.
A year ago, Hill was simply trying to get back in a baseball uniform after suffering a serious and potentially career-threatening concussion. Asked if he would have predicted that he would launch 30 homers a season after such a scare, Hill shook his head and smiled.
"No," Hill replied. "I hope they don't expect me to do that every year."
A few minutes later, Blue Jays manager Cito Gaston was asked the same question.
"I didn't think so," Gaston said. "I hope that's something we see every year -- that'd be great."
The contradiction in reactions made Gaston chuckle.
"Well, I know when I was playing," Gaston said, "if you hit 30 this year, you better hit 30 next year."
By the time Hill went yard on Tuesday, sending a pitch from Shields over the wall in left field for a solo shot, the Rays (69-56) had already run out to a 6-2 lead over the Blue Jays (57-67). Cecil labored with his command and allowed six runs -- four on a pair of homers by Tampa Bay's Carlos Pena -- before being chased from the game with one out in the fourth inning.
Blue Jays rookie Travis Snider added a solo homer off Shields in the seventh inning, representing the right fielder's third blast since being promoted from Triple-A Las Vegas last week. Like Hill, though, Snider found it hard to enjoy his personal success under the circumstances.
"It's tough when we're not winning ballgames," Snider said. "That's the whole reason we're here, to win ballgames. You concentrate on what you do individually, but it's tough when the team's not playing well or not winning."
Cecil (5-3) looked strong in the first inning, needing just eight pitches to retire All-Stars Jason Bartlett, Ben Zobrist and Evan Longoria in order. Three pitches into the second inning, though, the young left-hander had allowed a base hit to Pat Burrell and the first of Pena's two blasts, helping Tampa Bay grab an early 2-1 lead.
In the third inning, Cecil yielded a base hit and a walk before loading the bases with no outs -- Longoria reached on a fielding error by third baseman Jose Bautista -- and then allowed a two-run single to Burrell. Pena then belted a 1-2 curveball deep into the second deck above right field for another two-run blast, pushing the Blue Jays behind, 6-1.
Shortly before Cecil allowed Pena's second home run, giving the first baseman 37 long balls this season, Gaston headed to the mound for a quick visit. The message was simple: pound the lower half of the strike zone. Gaston said that consistently has been an issue for Cecil this season.
"The ball just got up," Cecil said. "I didn't feel very good. I don't know what else to say. Cito came out and said, 'Get the ball down,' and I felt like I did until I hung the curveball. Two bad pitches to the same person, and it's a totally different game."
It did not help matters that the Jays went just 1-for-6 at the plate with runners in scoring position, stranding eight runners in the process. The lone hit in that scenario came in the first inning, when Jays left fielder Adam Lind delivered an RBI single against Shields (8-10). After that, Toronto struggled offensively as a whole, and Shields earned a win after giving up three runs over 6 2/3 frames.
"It's like I've said, the three guys that are hitting are not up at those particular times," said Gaston, referring to Marco Scutaro, Lind and Hill. "They've hit all year, and the guys in the lower part of the lineup, they've pretty much struggled most of the year."
Hill, whose previous career best in homers was 17 in 2007, has been a consistent threat out of the No. 2 hole of the Blue Jays' lineup. The second baseman leads Toronto in home runs and RBIs (82) and is on pace to become the first middle infielder in franchise history to finish first on the team in either category in a single season.
As for his newfound power, Hill has no explanation.
"And I want to keep it that way," Hill said with a laugh. "As far as preparation, I've been more serious with it and more consistent. That's the only thing I can think of. Just staying within myself, I guess."
Jordan Bastian is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.