TORONTO -- The Blue Jays have one month left to evaluate the performance of right-hander Carlos Villanueva before free agency eventually hits, and there's one big test he'll need to pass before any serious interest is expressed.
Toronto would like to see how Villanueva performs when he's asked to pitch deeper into games. For the most part, the veteran has been looked upon as a maximum six-inning pitcher, but that needs to change if the Blue Jays are going to offer him a spot in next year's rotation.
The audition process took another turn on Tuesday night as Villanueva pitched into the seventh inning for just the fourth time this year, but he also allowed a season-high six runs in a lopsided 12-0 loss to the Orioles at Rogers Centre.
"Looking back on this one, just trying to get Carlos extended deeper into a game," Blue Jays manager John Farrell said after the loss. "One of the things we've got to take a longer look at, is just how deep he can get into ballgames consistently."
On the surface, the early results from that initial test are not positive. After facing the minimum through four innings, Villanueva surrendered a three-run homer to Mark Reynolds in the fifth, a sacrifice fly to Nate McLouth in the sixth and another sacrifice fly to Robert Andino in the seventh.
But Villanueva was still well within range of his most recent pitch counts. He entered the seventh inning on 82 pitches and when he departed with a runner on third and two outs, Villanueva had thrown just 90.
Despite the relatively low pitch count, Farrell said that he didn't see the same quality of stuff from Villanueva during the later innings.
"In the seventh, a number of pitches were left up in the zone," Farrell said. "Didn't quite have the finish down in the strike zone as he had been showing previously. That was the difference, just elevation on some pitches inside the strike zone that they were able to capitalize on."
Villanueva has been vocal in recent weeks about his desire to pitch deeper into games. All of that talk has come during a recent string of success, which has seen the Dominican native become one of the Blue Jays' most reliable starters.
The 28-year-old Villanueva entered play on Tuesday with a 5-4 record and a 3.03 ERA as a starter, while recording seven quality starts in 11 outings this season. Even though the success has been there, he frequently has been limited to six innings -- perhaps in part because of a right elbow injury that cost him more than a month on the disabled list in 2011.
The desire to have extended outings will become a key storyline in the coming weeks, as Villanueva inches closer to reaching free agency for the first time in his career. Villanueva's stated preference is to start, and he'll need to be compensated for that role -- especially if he displays improved stamina over the final month of the year.
But the evaluation process is just as critical for the Blue Jays, who will be examining a guy who has been a reliever for the vast majority of his time in the big leagues. Even though the late-inning results didn't go Villanueva's way, he didn't think fatigue played any role at all against Baltimore.
"In that seventh inning, I came out, [Chris] Davis hit a weak ground ball with nobody there," Villanueva said. "I got the next guy and then [Manny] Machado, I just didn't make a good pitch, he hit that double.
"But I'm happy I got the chance to go back out there. Obviously I'm disappointed I couldn't have a shut-down inning there, at least keep it close, but they showed why they're in a race. Bottom line, we just have to play better."
Offensively, the Blue Jays saw their struggles against left-handed pitching continue. Toronto was held off the scoreboard and managed a total of four hits and two walks while going 0-for-6 with runners in scoring position against Orioles starter Zach Britton.
Britton has now allowed just two runs on eight hits and four walks in 13 2/3 innings during the past two starts against the Blue Jays. He has allowed a total of just three runs in four starts since rejoining the starting rotation on Aug. 18.
Toronto saw its average against lefties drop to .246 (329-for-1338) while posting a .307 on-base percentage and 169 runs, which ranks 19th in the Major Leagues. Farrell said a lot of the problems center around playing without the services of injured players Jose Bautista, J.P. Arencibia and Brett Lawrie.
"When we face left-handers, Colby [Rasmus], Adam [Lind] and Kelly [Johnson], their extra-base production is adversely affected," Farrell said. "That's where we see the absence of the depth of the right-handed side of the lineup really start to show up, when you're missing Jose, J.P. and Brett against left-handed starters, it shows itself."
Toronto has lost four consecutive games -- including two against the Orioles -- while Baltimore is headed in the opposite direction. With the Rays defeating the Yankees 5-2 on Tuesday night, the Orioles moved into a first-place tie with New York atop the American League East standings.
"We're on a good roll, but I think our heads are in the right spot," Britton said. "We're not looking too far ahead, we're focusing on the moment."