"I was 86-88 mph and my breaking balls were flat," Villanueva said. "It's difficult -- going out there feeling physically fine -- but having nothing behind the ball. It is a horrible feeling. Some days you feel like that and you find a way to get it done. But today, you run into a hot team and they took advantage of every mistake that I made."
Villanueva entered as one of Toronto's most reliable starters, but wasn't close to being that versus Tampa Bay. His command was inconsistent and even when Villanueva managed to get ahead in the count, he was unable to finish anybody off.
The disappointing outing marked just the fourth time this season Villanueva has surrendered more than three runs in an outing. It also was the first time in 15 starts that he didn't throw at least five innings.
Villanueva's troubles began almost immediately after the first pitch of the game. The Dominican native retired the first two batters he faced, then served up a homer to Rays infielder Ben Zobrist.
In the second, Tampa Bay erupted for an additional four runs. First baseman Carlos Pena had a two-run triple before former Blue Jays catcher Jose Molina came through with a two-run homer to deep left field. It was more of the same in the third as Luke Scott delivered another two-run double before Villanueva was eventually pulled.
Villanueva was charged with seven runs on eight hits and two walks while failing to record at least two strikeouts for the first time this year. He is 1-3 with a 10.32 ERA in nine career appearances against the Rays.
"I felt like I could have thrown the rosin bag up there and they would have hit it square," said Villanueva, who is eligible for free agency at the end of the year. "I didn't let down at any moment, I tried to keep battling after they scored the five runs, keep it right there. But it was just like anything I threw up there, they hit.
"Every time I got a guy on two strikes, they fouled it off, fouled it off, and then made solid contact. It was all over the field and it was all of them. First pitch, whatever it was, they were jumping all over me and they got me out of there quick today."
The 28-year-old Villanueva has two more starts to prove he can finish on a high note. There have been lingering questions about whether he is physically capable of handling a full-season workload, and while those can't be answered this year -- because he didn't enter the rotation until late June -- a strong finish will at least help alleviate some of the concerns.
Villanueva earned a starting job midway through the 2011 campaign as well and went 6-3 with a 3.67 ERA over nine starts. He then proceeded to post a 9.31 ERA over his final four starts in part because of a right forearm injury.
By comparison, Villanueva began this season with a 4-0 record and 2.54 ERA in his first five starts. Since then, he has gone 1-6 with a 4.83 ERA in 10 outings and hasn't won since he pitched six scoreless innings against the Rays on Aug. 30 at Rogers Centre.
"We're getting to that point where he has pitched more innings this year than any year previous, and the fact is he was a little bit flat tonight," manager John Farrell said. "There are games where guys come out a little bit flat, that was the case tonight.
"There has been no indication of [fatigue] through the time he has been in the rotation. He has done an excellent job with that. He has pitched very effectively, he has kept us in the ballgame on almost every occasion. Tonight was the exception."
On offense, the Blue Jays were a non-factor for most of the night. Right-hander James Shields didn't allow a run over seven innings while striking out nine to become the first Rays pitcher to record back-to-back seasons with 200-plus strikeouts.
Toronto did eventually get on the scoreboard in the eighth on an RBI double by Yan Gomes to avoid being shut out for the first time since Sept. 4.
"It means a lot," Shields said of reaching the 200-strikeout plateau for the second consecutive season. "I've worked really hard over the last couple of years to get my game back in action and be able to throw 20 innings. Two-hundred strikeouts was definitely a goal of mine and I'm proud to be able to get there again this year."
The Blue Jays have lost three consecutive games and haven't won a series since sweeping the Red Sox in early September.