Pitching, defense key as Rays sweep Blue Jays

Pitching, defense key as Rays sweep Blue Jays

Pitching, defense key as Rays sweep Blue Jays
ST. PETERSBURG -- Tampa Bay reliever J.P. Howell probably never thought that wrestling with his dog, Rosie, would ever come in handy during a pennant race.

But he said that playing with his Portuguese Water Dog gave him the agility to make a play that saved the game-tying run in the seventh inning of the Rays 3-0 win over the Blue Jays on Sunday at Tropicana Field. It helped preserve the shutout and clinch the sweep, giving Tampa Bay its fifth straight win.

"I got a little lucky, got to it so quick and just got rid of it," said Howell, who flipped the ball to first baseman Carlos Pena. "It's just one of those reaction plays. I wrestle with my dog a lot, and it's good -- it gets me that angle to throw it."

Rays starter Jeremy Hellickson led the pitching effort and lasted 5 2/3 innings, allowing five hits and two walks with six strikeouts, before the bullpen came in to finish off the Jays.

The staff was helped throughout the afternoon by some stellar defensive plays, but none stood out more than Howell's grab, according to Rays manager Joe Maddon.

"Honestly, that's the play of the year," Maddon said. "That's an impossible play. He makes a great pitch, full swing, [Colby] Rasmus runs well, and he makes that play. It's an impossible play to make. You win the pennant because of that play right there."

Tampa Bay's first run came courtesy of a B.J. Upton home run in the bottom of the first. The club had entered Sunday averaging just less than 11 runs in its last four games.

"I would've liked 15 runs, too," Hellickson joked about the run support. "But they saved a few runs for me there in those first few innings and scored a few late to get us a little cushion."

Upton's 26th shot of the year came on a 3-2 offering from Jays starter Chad Jenkins, and extended his career high for homers in a season.

Jenkins, who was making his first career start, fared well, surrendering just the solo shot, one other hit and a walk over five innings with four strikeouts.

"I caught a little too much plate with a few of my pitches, and they hammered them pretty well," Jenkins said of the beginning of his start. "Then after that, I settled down and everything worked out. I think I just calmed down a little bit."

Because of Oakland's victory over New York on Sunday, Tampa Bay remains 3 1/2 games out of the second American League Wild Card spot, but they shrank the deficit to Baltimore, which leads the first slot, to 4 1/2 games after its loss to Boston.

Hellickson cruised through the first four innings, surrendering just a pair of singles in the second while striking out three. The typically fly-ball pitcher also used eight groundball outs to help him get through it.

"They just hit it on the ground," Hellickson said. "I've been getting more ground balls this year -- I just kept the ball down."

He got into his first bit of trouble in the top of the fifth when Toronto had runners at second and third with two outs. Hellickson was able to escape it though, thanks to a swinging strikeout from Brett Lawrie.

The following inning, Hellickson got into another jam, putting runners on the corners with two outs. Maddon elected to go to his bullpen, inserting lefty Jake McGee, who caught Kelly Johnson looking at strike three to end the threat.

"When that moment came up for him versus Johnson, you just feel like he's gonna throw a strike," Maddon said. "Among all of our relievers, he's the one guy that's gonna pop the zone, so I like him there."

The Blue Jays continued to keep the Rays pitchers on their toes in the seventh. Anthony Gose had doubled his way on base and then tagged to get to third with two outs. Rasmus came to the plate and hit a grounder that Howell dove after, flipping the ball to first in the process to get the out and save the lead.

"Timing is everything," Howell said. "Good thing for [pitching coach Jim Hickey's] PFP's [pitcher's fielding practice] in Spring Training, they're coming into play for me right now."

Joel Peralta and Fernando Rodney came in to finish off Toronto in the last two innings to seal the victory, which was made a touch easier thanks to the insurance runs provided by Evan Longoria's two-run double in the eighth.

Greg Zeck is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.