Villanueva entered the outing winless in five August starts and was coming off arguably his worst performance since joining the staff. He had surrendered four runs -- tied for his most since April -- in 5 2/3 innings in a loss to the Orioles.
But on Thursday he threw six shutout innings while walking one and striking out seven to earn his first victory since July 27. He has struck out at least six in seven of his starts, and did not surrender a run for the third time.
The Blue Jays gave the right-hander a cushion in the first inning after he retired the side in order.
Toronto strung together a two-out rally off Rays starter Matt Moore, who allowed a pair of walks and a
single, loading the bases for Kelly Johnson.
Johnson responded by lacing a double down the right-field line, plating two and putting the Blue Jays ahead.
"[I was] just plugging away, trying to continue to battle and fight," said Johnson, who went 3-for-4 for his first back-to-back multihit games since June 15-16.
That was all Villanueva needed.
The 28-year-old continued his impressive transition to the rotation, and after battling out of a second-inning jam, in which he allowed the first two runners to reach base, he went on to retire nine straight -- including six by way of strikeout to tie a club record.
"I think that is where his experience coming out of the bullpen really comes into play," manager John Farrell said about Villanueva's ability to escape the jam. "He doesn't let the game move around on him [or] speed up."
Villanueva became the fourth pitcher in franchise history to punch out six consecutively, joining lefties Marc Rzepczynski, Ted Lilly and J.A. Happ.
He also improved to 7-4, lowering his ERA to 3.10 in the process, and despite not joining the rotation until
halfway through the season, is one win behind Ricky Romero for the team lead.
Villanueva does a good job of complementing his fastball with a curveball, slider and changeup that he will
throw at any time. His average fastball is under 90 mph, but many opposing players have said it looks quicker.
"He's smart, and he mixes his pitches well," Rays outfielder Sam Fuld said. "Kind of a typical, crafty, smart
pitcher who hits his spots, and today he threw four pitches for strikes."
Farrell believes that Villanueva has been helped by creating more energy in his delivery the last few starts.
"It has allowed him to have a better sell to his secondary pitches," Farrell said. "[It's] credit to his preparation and the intelligence he has as a pitcher. That is what allows him to be as effective as he is."
Villanueva may be taking that effectiveness elsewhere, as he is set to become a free agent for the first time in his career. But he doesn't want to put any extra pressure on himself, even though he knows there are people paying attention to what he's doing.
"I don't think I need to audition for anybody. I think I have shown what I can do, and if I am [auditioning], I don't care," Villanueva said. "If somebody wants me on their team, then somebody will get me."
If the Blue Jays are interested in bringing him back, he will listen, but the biggest issue for him is that he wants to start. He feels he has proven that he can be a Major League starter and simply hadn't been given
enough chances to showcase that part of his game.
"The way I have been treated here, it would be disrespectful for me not to consider coming back if they want
me back," he said. "Right now I want to be a starter. I think I have made that clear."
When Farrell was asked after the game if he sees Villanueva as part of the team's future, he wouldn't commit either way,
except to say that Villanueva will get the ball again in five days.
"That question will be answered in due time," Farrell said. "If nothing is done prior to the end of the
season, he has certainly earned the right, given his career, to test the market."
Moore, meanwhile, lasted six innings and blanked the Blue Jays after the two-run first. The lefty allowed
six hits, walked three and struck out seven while falling to 10-8 on the year.
Darren Oliver and Brad Lincoln worked the seventh and eighth, respectively, before turning it over to Casey
Janssen, who recorded his 18th save of the year.
The Blue Jays have now won back-to-back games for the first time since Aug. 12-13, and they snapped a five-game losing
streak against the Rays. It was their first shutout since beating the Indians, 3-0, on July 15.