The scary — and sickening — sight Tuesday night of Blue Jays left-hander J.A. Happ getting struck in the head with a line drive, and being taken off the field on a stretcher, will put into perspective any late-inning defeat, no matter how bad.
The health of Happ, 30, who was reported to be in stable condition at Bayfront Medical Center, became the most immediate concern following the Rays' 6-4 loss to the Jays at Tropicana Field.
But the mental state of the Rays' (14-18) struggling bullpen has become the biggest worry in their early season slide after blowing another lead, this one a three-run cushion, to fall closer to last place in the American League East.
Thirteen of Tampa Bay's 18 losses have come in games in which it held a lead, the most in the majors, including improbably squandering a seven-run advantage Monday. Manager Joe Maddon said it's more of a "confidence thing" than anything else and it's one of those "anomaly moments," believing the bullpen will, by the end of the year, be one of the American League's best. But Maddon acknowledged there's no quick fix coming, they just have to be patient, while understanding it's "frustrating" for the fans and in the clubhouse.
"It's a bad stretch for almost everyone in the bullpen right now," said veteran Joel Peralta, who gave up the go-ahead solo homer to Maicer Izturis in the ninth. "Almost everyone is trying to make pitches, we're probably trying too hard. Sometimes the harder you try the worse it goes."
The Rays took a 4-1 lead in an eventful second inning, which included Happ's horrifying injury and Maddon getting ejected after another apparently blown call by home plate umpire Marty Foster.
When Sean Rodriguez was controversially called out at home after thinking he avoided the tag by catcher J.P. Arencibia and touched the plate with a head-first slide, Maddon argued and was tossed. The Rays continued their rally, with Desmond Jennings' liner caroming off the left side of Happ's head into the rightfield bullpen for a two-run triple. Jennings, who was shaken by the play, left without speaking to reporters after the game.
"Awful," Maddon said. "A very scary moment."
"It was jaw-dropping," Rodriguez said.
After an 11-minute delay, Happ was carted off the field, waving a hand to a loud ovation from the crowd of 10,273, which had become eerily silent as medical personnel attended to the seven-year veteran.
"Everyone was stunned and shocked," Jays manager John Gibbons said. "But you just keep plugging along."
That the Jays (13-21) did, even though Rays right-hander Roberto Hernandez had held them down for the first six innings, allowing one run and striking out seven.
"Roberto was outstanding," Maddon said. "That was his best performance all year."
But, once again, the Tampa Bay bullpen, which has an AL-high 5.19 ERA after being the league's best a year ago, couldn't finish the job. Lefty Jake McGee continued his season-long struggles, allowing a double and two-run homer in the seventh. Kyle Farnsworth gave up one in the eighth, making it tied going into the ninth, when the Jays scored two on Peralta.
Maddon said they're not going to make trades, or call others up from Triple A, to fix the situation. They're just going to stick with it and rebuild their confidence.
"This is a really good group," Maddon said. "We have a lot of confidence and faith in them. They're going to come together."
Joe Smith can be reached at email@example.com.