"Carlos was at his best when he had men on," Blue Jays manager John Farrell said. "They had the start of multiple innings with guys on base, but, repeatedly, he made a number of big pitches to squelch any threat."
Villanueva surrendered just three hits while striking out a career-high eight batters. He did issue a season-high five walks, but managed to get away with it by limiting the Indians to 0-for-7 with runners in scoring position.
The 28-year-old has proven to be a stabilizing force in the Blue Jays' starting rotation following injuries to Brandon Morrow, Kyle Drabek and Drew Hutchison. Villanueva has allowed just three earned runs in 17 innings since joining the staff and is currently on a streak of 12 scoreless innings.
Villanueva also has allowed just 14 hits and six walks over the span of three starts. He is quickly proving himself as a capable replacement for a team that is in desperate need of reliable arms.
The Dominican native has been able to do that not with an overpowering fastball, but with an impressive array of offspeed pitches that are keeping hitters off-balance at the plate.
"He is a big offspeed guy, and I thought he had a good changeup going today," Indians second baseman Jason Kipnis said. "He did a good job of keeping the ball down. He got us to swing at some pitches in the dirt.
"It's not a fastball that is going to blow by you ... it's deception and he moves the ball around. Good offspeed. He loves his changeup. If he thinks you are aggressive, or are trying to jump on a ball, you are going to get a changeup or a backdoor curveball."
Despite the final score, Sunday's game was far from a walk in the park for Villanueva. He allowed runners to reach scoring position with less than two outs in both the first and second innings.
In each case, he was able to induce a weak fly ball and then a strikeout to end the frame. Villanueva said he attempted to slow the game down in those situations, but also indicated that adjustments made in between innings with catcher J.P. Arencibia proved to be the biggest difference-maker.
"They had a good game plan against me," Villanueva said. "They were waiting me out and we adjusted accordingly. We talked for a little bit, and I just started using my fastball more in middle counts. It seemed like if I went first-pitch fastball, they were swinging at it and then I went offspeed second and third pitch it didn't matter if it was close, they were taking.
"He [Arencibia] saw that first and then I think the second time through, we were a little more aggressive. But in the end, we grinded it out and he made some good decisions back there and I followed him to the 'T' today."
The Blue Jays did all of their damage in the third inning off Cleveland's Derek Lowe. Kelly Johnson led off the frame with a walk and he would later steal second and advance to third on a throwing error by catcher Carlos Santana. Arencibia followed with an RBI single for the game's first run.
Two batters later, Colby Rasmus added an RBI single to right field while Lowe eventually lost command of the strike zone and walked Adam Lind with the bases loaded to increase Toronto's lead to 3-0. Lowe then settled down and got through the sixth without surrendering any more runs.
The win improved the Blue Jays' record to 4-2 against Cleveland this season. They will now embark on a six-game, seven-day road trip through New York and Boston in what could prove to be a pivotal week, as the non-waiver Trade Deadline approaches at the end of July.
"I'm glad I came out on top today with a good team [like] Cleveland --they're right there in the hunt -- and keep us close to at least that second Wild Card," Villanueva said. "We want every single game we play to matter because I think the fans, the people and all the guys that have been here for a long time -- [Casey] Janssen, [Jason] Frasor especially -- they're tired of playing meaningless games and we feel the same way.
"We don't know where we're going to be next year. A lot of us are free agents. Now that we're here and the group's here, we want to take it as far as we can."