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06/03/10 12:50 AM ET

Collapse in ninth cancels Marcum's effort

Starter took 2-1 lead into final inning before Rays rallied

TORONTO -- A day off could not have arrived at a better time for the Blue Jays as far as manager Cito Gaston is concerned. His players can take a collective deep breath on Thursday, clear their minds and head into the weekend without a hangover from their series with Tampa Bay.

"Tomorrow will not be a good day to wake up to," Gaston said.

On Wednesday night, the Blue Jays dropped a 7-3 decision to the American League East-leading Rays, suffering an eighth consecutive series loss to Tampa Bay in the process. Jays right-hander Shaun Marcum flirted with his first career complete-game victory, but a disastrous ninth inning saw the win rapidly slip away.

Tampa Bay struck for six runs in the final frame one game after pounding out four ninth-inning runs en route to dealing Toronto closer Kevin Gregg a blown save and a loss on Tuesday. With the exception of those two late meltdowns, the Blue Jays (31-24) held a lead in every inning played over the past three games.

Only two forgettable innings separated the Blue Jays from a sweep of the division leaders.

"That's a tough one to swallow," Marcum said. "The last two days, we gave games away."

Marcum's evening began to unravel immediately in the ninth inning. With the Blue Jays' bullpen running on fumes, Gaston gave his No. 1 starter a chance at a complete game. Marcum had thrown only 94 pitches through eight innings and had limited the Rays (36-18) to just one unearned run over that span in a duel with lefty David Price.

With the Jays clinging to a 2-1 lead, Sean Rodriguez led off the ninth inning with a single to left field, and Ben Zobrist followed with a base hit. Later in the frame, with one out and runners on the corners, Marcum anticipated that Tampa Bay catcher Dioner Navarro might attempt to bring home the tying run with a squeeze bunt.

"You pretty much know it's coming," Marcum said. "But the runner didn't take off. It was more of a safety squeeze, so I tried to throw something down and away, hoping he'd foul it off."

Instead, Navarro pushed the ball down the first-base line. Blue Jays first baseman Lyle Overbay sprinted in, gloved the slow roller and fired the ball to catcher John Buck, but Rodriguez slid ahead of a potential tag to knot the score, 2-2. Reid Brignac followed that up with an RBI double to the gap in left-center field to put the Jays behind, 3-2.

After that chain of events, Gaston emerged from the dugout and pulled the plug on Marcum's night.

"Marcum did a great job," Gaston said.

The pitcher's final line quickly became even uglier, though. Blue Jays reliever Jason Frasor loaded the bases with a walk to B.J. Upton, prompting Gaston to bring in left-hander Scott Downs to face Tampa Bay's Carl Crawford. Two pitches later, Crawford was trotting around the bases after belting a grand slam that gave the Rays a 7-2 advantage.

Marcum saw his record drop to 5-2 and his ERA increase to 2.77 in the loss, during which he was charged with five runs (four earned) on 10 hits over 8 1/3 innings. For the first eight innings, Marcum had outperformed Price (8-2), who relinquished only a pair of unearned runs -- thanks to three Rays errors -- in picking up a win.

Toronto struck once in each of the first and second innings and added a third run in the home half of the ninth off Rays closer Rafael Soriano. The Blue Jays also benefited from a handful of plays in the field. Right fielder Jose Bautista threw Navarro out at the plate in the fifth inning, and Rodriguez was ruled out trying to score in the sixth after missing third base on his way to the plate.

"We caught some breaks early on and in the middle part of the game," Marcum said. "But other than that, we've just got to give them credit, too."

As was the case on Tuesday night, recording the final three outs against the Rays proved difficult.

"They do have a good club over there, but we can play with them," Gaston said. "We just have to hold them there. We just have to continue to play like we've been playing. Somewhere there, we're going to get three outs in the ninth inning. Someday. Somewhere.

"We had a chance to sweep these guys. All we had to do was get three outs."

That made the past two losses especially hard for the Jays to accept.

"It's very tough," Marcum said. "That's probably the best team in the league. We've played them six times and we've taken them down to the wire every time. Late in the game, they've come back and they've battled. That's probably why they were in the World Series a couple years ago and why they're leading the division."

Gaston is hoping Thursday's off-day will help, especially with the Yankees up next.

"It's a good time to certainly get away from the last two games," he said.

Jordan Bastian is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.