TORONTO -- The Blue Jays will look to play the role of spoiler this month as the season comes to an eventual close. But in order to do that, they'll need the offense to take it up a notch or two.
A Labor Day holiday matinee would have been the perfect opportunity for things to turn around with contender -- and American League East rival -- Baltimore in town for the start of a three-game series.
Instead of breaking out, though, the offense saw its recent struggles continue as the Blue Jays were held without a hit for 5 2/3 innings and completely shut down by journeyman left-hander Joe Saunders in a 4-0 loss at Rogers Centre.
"We made a lot of early outs, particularly in those early and mid innings," Blue Jays manager John Farrell said. "He threw a changeup to right-handers to slow them down, but we didn't put many good swings on some pitches. He stayed out of the middle of the plate for the most part."
Toronto is in the midst of a prolonged period of offensive struggles at the plate. Forced to field a lineup without the services of injured players such as Jose Bautista, Brett Lawrie and J.P. Arencibia, the club is trying to get by with several rookies and back-ups in its starting nine.
In late July, the Blue Jays had the highest-ranked offense in the Major Leagues, but have since dropped out of the top 10. The main reason for that has been the inability to score more than four runs in a game. The Blue Jays have done it just five times since July 29.
The woeful post-July numbers have opposing teams looking to take advantage, and perhaps was one reason why Saunders was dreaming big early on. After getting through the first on a 1-2-3 inning, Baltimore's veteran starter couldn't help but have one thought cross his mind.
"You think about it, I thought about it after the first," Saunders said of the potential perfect game. "I'm like, 'Oh, nice, I didn't give up a hit in the first.' In the first game of series, you want to set the tone and really give your team a chance to win."
The perfect game didn't happen, but Saunders did manage to get through the first five innings without giving up a walk or hit. The closest Toronto came to getting on base was in the second, when Yunel Escobar attempted to lay a bunt down the third base line.
Manny Machado read the bunt perfectly, and after bare-handing the ball, made an off-balance throw to first, which beat a diving Escobar.
The highlight-reel play would help keep Saunders' bid for a perfect game intact until the bottom of the sixth. That's when, with two outs, rookie infielder Adeiny Hechavarria hit a solid single up the middle to ensure the Blue Jays wouldn't be no-hit for the first time since Justin Verlander did it on May 7, 2011.
"When I got traded over here, they had a great thing going and you just want to come over here and contribute as much you can," said Saunders, who was making his second start since being acquired from Arizona last month.
"You don't want to mess it up and get blown up a lot. You want to keep the team in the ballgame, give the team a chance to win and that's what I was able to do today."
The Blue Jays' first major scoring threat didn't occur until the seventh, when they loaded the bases with one out. But Luis Ayala came on to replace Saunders and struck out Moises Sierra before getting Jeff Mathis to fly out to end the inning.
Left-hander J.A. Happ got the start for Toronto and was let down by his defense in the second inning. Machado hit a high fly ball towards the corner in right field, but Sierra got a bad break on the play while dealing with the bright sunny conditions at Rogers Centre. The ball eventually bounced away for a three-base error and Machado would later score on a squeeze bunt by Nate McLouth.
Happ then allowed a pair of runs in the fifth as he surrendered four consecutive hits to open the frame. Nick Markakis and J.J. Hardy accounted for most of the damage with back-to-back RBI doubles.
"I just wanted to keep going, keep giving us a chance," Happ said of his performance, which included nine strikeouts. "We were trying to put together good at-bats against Saunders and he was tough today. Then we had some opportunities late in the game, you never know what can happen, one swing of the bat and it's a tie game. So I just wanted to keep us as close as I could, keep us right there."
The Blue Jays have now lost three consecutive games, while Baltimore continues its surge in the AL East. With the Yankees losing to Tampa Bay on Monday afternoon, the surprising Orioles have suddenly moved to within one game of New York for first place.
They've managed to do that by winning 20 of their past 28 games and improving to 59-0 overall when leading after the seventh inning.
"It seemed like they're kind of on a roll right now, and seems like things are falling a little bit for them," said Happ. "But they were tough, they battled and their guy threw the ball really well.
"I was trying to be pretty selective in the pitches I threw to keep us in the game as best I could, but unfortunately they chased me out of there a little bit quicker than I would have liked."