DUNEDIN, Fla. -- After watching Esmil Rogers stumble, Blue Jays manager John Gibbons pulled out a baseball maxim.
"Some of our top guys are putting together some good at-bats and some things like that," he said. "The key is pitching though. That's going to take us as far as we're going to go this year. We're trying to iron some things out, find out who's going to do what. We want strike-throwers."
Rogers, in the mix for the Jays' fifth starter, struck out six in his three innings Thursday in a 7-5 exhibition loss to the Houston Astros. But he also walked two and gave up four runs on five hits including two homers.
"First inning he was good. Then he was shaky after that," was Gibbons' pithy assessment of Rogers' performance.
"The key to him is throwing enough strikes. He could be a heck of a pitcher when he gets the ball into the strike zone. We've seen it before, that's where he runs into trouble."
With spring training entering its final weeks, the Jays are still looking wondering about their starting rotation.
Gibbons' pronouncement on pitching, while accurate, is hardly soothing to Toronto fans.
Barring injuries, R.A. Dickey, Mark Buehrle and Brandon Morrow are expected to emerge as the first three starters. Rogers is competing against Drew Hutchison, J.A. Happ, Ricky Romero, Todd Redmond, Kyle Drabek, Marcus Stroman, Sean Nolin and Dustin McGowan for the fourth and fifth spots.
Hutchison has drawn praise from general manager Alex Anthopoulos -- "We think Drew's got a chance to be outstanding" -- while Gibbons called Romero "the big talk of camp right now."
But questions remain.
Rogers likely did not do himself any favours Thursday after a 1-2-3 first inning that featured a groundout and two strikeouts. Things went downhill from there.
"My pitches were a little bit high," he said. "I lost my control."
Teenage shortstop Carlos Correa, a 19-year-old who was the No. 1 overall pick in the 2012 draft, and Jon Singleton hit back-to-back homers for Houston in the third inning off Rogers. Correa then drove in two more runs with a blast to centre in the eighth off Neil Wagner.
In between, he made a slick fielding play in the fourth to throw out Brett Lawrie.
Rogers said the Singleton homer came off a change-up, a pitch he suggested he might put aside for the time being.
Starter Dallas Keuchel pitched four scoreless innings as Houston (7-6) posted its fourth straight win in the spring. The last time the Astros won four in a row in the Grapefruit League was in March 2011.
McGowan was the best of the Blue Jays pitchers with two scoreless innings despite not having pitched in 10 days after being sidelined by a stomach bug that saw him lose eight pounds. The only blemish on his outing Thursday was a walk.
McGowan still thinks of himself as a starting pitcher but, with only four spring innings under his belt, he is behind others.
"There's what I want to be," he said. "If I'm there, great. If I'm in the bullpen, also great. Its a win-win situation, I think."
Houston went ahead 2-0 in the second on a Cesar Izturis single after Rogers dug himself in a bases-loaded hole with two walks and a single. Lawrie did his bit for the Toronto defence, gunning down Jesus Guzman at the plate before the Izturis hit.
The Blue Jays (6-8) scored three in the fifth off Collin McHugh to cut the lead to 4-3. Houston made it 5-3 in the sixth via a sacrifice fly.
Houston threatened again when Toronto pitcher Jeremy Jeffress loaded the bases in the seventh with no outs. He struck out one before giving way to Wagner, who struck out another and then escaped the inning when Ryan Goins made an eye-popping fielding play off a ball that flew off the pitcher's body.
There was action in the bottom of the seventh as Anthony Gose somehow turned a shallow fly ball into a triple when sliding Houston outfielder Adron Chambers was unable to chase the ball down. Kevin Pillar then was drilled by Josh Zeid with the Jays outfielder taking a long look at the Astros pitcher as he left the batter's box.
Gose scored on a fielder's choice when Pillar was cut down stealing second, cutting the lead to 5-4. Gose also scored on a sacrifice fly in the ninth to make it 7-5 after Correa's second homer extended the Houston lead.
Keuchel has yet to give up a run in nine innings this spring. He scattered six hits over his four innings Wednesday, striking out two with no walks.
The game featured half-brothers Cesar and Maicer Izturis, both starting at second base and batting ninth (the older Cesar for Houston and Maicer for Toronto).
Toronto outhit Houston 13-12.
The contest, which lasted three hours 11 minutes, drew 4,510 to Florida Auto Exchange Stadium on a 15-degree day.