TORONTO -- The Blue Jays have yet to find a groove this season but the positive news for the club is that its starting pitching appears to be headed in the right direction.
Right-hander Josh Johnson continued an upward trend by the starter's with seven strong innings against the White Sox. It would have been enough to win on most nights but not on a day when the bullpen and defense struggled to pick up the slack.
Reliever Steve Delabar surrendered a pair of runs in the ninth inning to overshadow a strong start by Johnson, and the Blue Jays were sent to a 4-3 loss on Tuesday night at Rogers Centre.
"I thought he was terrific," Blue Jays manager John Gibbons said of Johnson. "I thought maybe early on he was overthrowing a little bit then he settled in a did a great job. They scored a run on a wild pitch and then a solo homer, so he kept us in the game.
"Their guy [Dylan Axelrod] did too, basically shut us down. Hit some balls hard right at guys, but we're still waiting for the offense to break out."
Johnson's seven innings were the most by a Blue Jays starting pitcher this season. Following a slow start, Toronto has now received four consecutive quality outings from its rotation with just seven earned runs in 25 2/3 innings over that span.
It's a drastic turnaround considering that prior to streak Blue Jays starters had pitched the fewest innings in the Majors while also possessing the worst ERA. That's changed now, and the rotation is attempting to solidify itself as the strength many experts felt it would be at the beginning of the year.
Johnson was coming off the worst start of his career after allowing six runs in just 1 1/3 innings against Detroit on Thursday. He rectified the previous issues with renewed velocity on his fastball and improved location on his breaking pitches en route to only two earned runs against the White Sox.
"I was just more aggressive overall," said Johnson, who struck out a season-high eight. "Fastball, curveball, slider, everything was going -- not just to the catcher but through the catcher and through the zone. That was the main focus for this start and it worked out."
Johnson deserved a better fate but left after the seventh with the game tied. Delabar pitched a clean eighth but wasn't as lucky in the ninth. Delabar created his own issues by walking two batters to lead off the frame after not getting the call on a couple of borderline pitches.
Two batters later, Dayan Viciedo made the Blue Jays pay with a double over the head of Emilio Bonifacio in center field. Bonifacio has well-above-average speed but got a late break on the ball and appeared to get twisted around as his well-documented struggles in the field this season continued. Bonifacio replaced Colby Rasmus in center after Rajai Davis pinch-hit for Rasmus to lead off the seventh.
The hit allowed one run to score while another came around on a sacrifice fly by Alexei Ramirez later in the inning. Things could have turned out differently if Delabar got a strike-three call on a 3-2 fastball to Paul Konerko, but Blue Jays catcher J.P. Arencibia wasn't inclined to complain after the game.
"It was a tough pitch, that pitch I've seen go both ways," Arencibia said. "It was a little down but that's one of the harder pitches to grab. I took a look at it, for me even watching it on slow motion is tough, it is what it is and you just have to make pitches after that."
Toronto struck early against Axelrod when Rasmus hit a solo shot in the bottom of the second inning. Rasmus' fourth homer of the season momentarily put him in a tie with J.P. Arencibia for most on the team.
That changed in the sixth when Arencibia connected on his fifth of the year and second in as many days. Toronto's starting catcher is now three shy of the most homers he's had in a single month dating back to his eight in May 2012. Axelrod was charged with two runs, and allowed seven hits while striking out four.
Chicago's bullpen took it from there, as Hector Santiago, Matt Lindstrom and Addison Reed combined to pitch three scoreless innings.
"I feel like I executed pretty well altogether," Axelrod said. "[The White Sox bullpen has] been lights-out. I just wanted to have a quality start, have us in it, and then I figured we were going to keep it there."
The loss meant the Blue Jays (6-8) missed out on an opportunity to get back to .500. They've now lost two of their past three games, and though the victory was there for the taking Arencibia wasn't about to lament over the loss.
"You can't really say we let one get away," Arencibia said. "I think [Axelrod] did a good job of keeping us off the bases today and making pitches when he needed to make pitches.
"It was a tight game and at the end I think walking a couple of guys to start the inning, you kind of have your back against the wall. [Delabar] was able to make good pitches and strike a guy out and then you tip your hat to the hitter, he hit a slider that he was out in front of and was able to get it over Boni's head."