OAKLAND -- For the second consecutive year, the back end of Toronto's bullpen is proving to be the club's Achilles' heel.
At the start of Spring Training, the relievers were generally considered one of the biggest strengths for the Blue Jays, but more than a month into a season the saves have proven to be elusive.
The latest example of that came on Tuesday night when Francisco Cordero surrendered a walk-off grand slam to Oakland's Brandon Inge while also recording his third consecutive blown save in the Blue Jays' 7-3 loss at Oakland Coliseum.
"It has been frustrating," Cordero said. "You've got a team that keeps battling and battling back, come back and take the lead. They gave me the ball in the ninth inning and I just blew it again.
"I've got to pitch better or I'm going to find myself out of that situation or maybe the team. I have to do my job, it doesn't matter how but I've got to do it or I'm not going to have a job at all."
The Blue Jays tied for an American League worst 25 blown saves in 2011 but things were supposed to be different this season. Hard-throwing righty Sergio Santos was acquired from the White Sox during the offseason to solve the club's ninth-inning woes while the veteran Cordero was signed for eighth-inning duties.
The roles changed in late April as Santos was forced onto the 15-day disabled list with inflammation in his right shoulder. That prompted a promotion for Cordero, but the ride has been anything but smooth sailing.
Cordero, who ranks second on the all-time save list among active relievers with 329, has surrendered at least one run in each of his past four games. He has allowed 12 earned runs in 11 1/3 innings this season while the club as a whole is just 4-for-11 in save opportunities.
The forthright and accountable Cordero knows more was expected from him. He also has been expecting better results from himself but so far doesn't have answers to the lingering questions of doubt.
"I think I just haven't made good pitches," said Cordero, who has been on the mound for five walk-off wins by the A's during his career. "I don't think I [made] any good pitches tonight. With the leadoff guy [Michael Taylor], I think the only good pitch that I made was that one and it went off the line for a double.
"It's hard for me to explain what's going on but I have to make better pitches, I have to get people out or I won't have a job at all."
Cordero was brought into the game in the ninth to protect a 3-2 lead as Toronto appeared on the verge of snapping a two-game losing streak. But things started off on a bad note as Taylor began Oakland's rally with a double to the right-field corner.
Two batters later, Cliff Pennington came through with an RBI single through the right side of the infield to tie the score at 3. Cordero remained in the game but things went from bad to worse later in the frame as Pennington stole second base.
A passed ball charged to catcher Jeff Mathis and a pair of intentional walks then set the table for Inge. Oakland's recent acquisition got ahead in the count 1-0 and then drove a ball over the wall in left field for the game-winning shot.
"I was trying to get it in the outfield," said Inge, who recorded Oakland's first walk-off grand slam since Mark Ellis did it in June 2008. "That's all I was trying to do at that point. I knew they were trying to get me to hit it on the ground somewhere, and it was my job to get it in the outfield far enough for a sacrifice fly. It was a bonus that it went out."
The late-inning collapse overshadowed Toronto's own ninth-inning rally. Eric Thames got things started in the top half of the inning with a leadoff triple to the gap in left-center field against right-hander Grant Balfour.
With two outs and a runner still on third, Kelly Johnson sent a line-drive single over the head of a jumping Jemile Weeks at second base for the go-ahead run.
Johnson, who finished the night 2-for-4, also was responsible for Toronto's two other runs. The 30-year-old opened the scoring in the third inning with a two-run homer to left field off A's starter Jarrod Parker.
"I thought we executed at times when we needed to offensively," manager John Farrell said. "This is a tough ballgame to lose. You put yourself in that position in the ninth to get three outs and close out a victory and tonight we didn't convert."
Blue Jays top starter Ricky Romero held the 2-0 lead until the fifth inning when he served up a two-run homer of his own. Romero's 2-1 pitch was sent over the wall in right-center field by Oakland center fielder Josh Reddick for his sixth of the year.
Romero, who struggled with his control for most of the night, managed to get through the sixth. He allowed just the two runs and struck out seven but issued a season-high five walks while throwing 61 of his 110 pitches for strikes.
That pitching line will be only a small footnote following the events that occurred late Tuesday night. Farrell said it was too early to discuss future ninth-inning save opportunities but Romero made it clear that Cordero has the support of the 24 other men in Toronto's clubhouse.
"He has done it for such a long time and I'm sure he will rebound from it," Romero said. "As teammates all we can do is stand by each other. This is probably where he needs us the most and we're going to do just that. You just have to come back tomorrow, get back to work and I'm sure when the bell rings he'll be ready."