Game Recap: Rays pound Jays, gain ground in Wild Card race

ST. PETERSBURG — Friday went about as well as Tampa Bay could have hoped for.

The offense erupted for the third straight game and James Shields made history in a solid start, picking up a 12-1 win at Tropicana Field in the opener of a three-game weekend set with Toronto.

With the victory, Tampa Bay moved to within 4 1/2 games of Oakland for the second American League Wild Card spot after the A’s lost to the Yankees. Baltimore won at Boston, so the Orioles maintained their 5 1/2-game lead over the Rays in the first AL Wild Card slot. The Rays are 6 1/2 games behind the Yankees in the AL East race.

Seven Tampa Bay starters had at least one hit and eight of the nine starters scored. Luke Scott paced the lineup with four RBIs on a pair of doubles, while Evan Longoria went 3-for-4 and scored a pair of runs.

It’s the third straight game the Rays have scored seven or more runs, and Longoria said the previous two games provided a boost Friday.

“At least we were able to take the momentum from [Thursday] night’s game and bring it into tonight’s game,” Longoria said. “It was pretty promising today. I saw a lot of spark and life that we haven’t seen in the dugout as of late.”

But the night belonged to Shields, who delivered seven scoreless innings and nine strikeouts, allowing just six hits and a walk.

The righty first made his way into the record books when he struck out J.P. Arencibia in the second. It gave the Rays’ staff 1,267 punchouts, surpassing the 2001 Yankees for a new American League record.

“As a pitching staff this year, we’ve been the best I’ve ever seen in this organization,” Shields said. “This is my 12th season with the Rays in the organization, and this is the best pitching staff I’ve ever been a part of. It’s exciting to watch.

“After I struck out that first guy, I looked in the dugout and tipped my cap to everybody in the dugout. It was a special moment for us. After the game, we kind of all got together and hugged it out, so it was pretty cool.”

Shields made history again in the sixth when he made Arencibia his seventh victim. The whiff gave the righty his second career 200-strikeout season, making him the first Rays pitcher to achieve the feat in consecutive seasons.

“I’ve worked hard over the last couple years to get my game back in action,” said Shields, who earned his 15th win. “To be able to throw 200 innings and 200 strikeouts is definitely a goal in mind, and I’m proud to get there this year again.”

The solid outing has been nothing new for Shields, who has allowed three or fewer runs in nine of his last 10 starts. In that span, he’s gone 7-2 with a 2.16 ERA, and said he may be pitching as well as he has all year.

“Right now, I feel like my stuff is as good, if not better than it was at the beginning of the season, so that’s good timing,” Shields said. “This is what I condition myself to do every single year.”

Tampa Bay didn’t waste any time getting on the scoreboard. In the first with two down, Ben Zobrist blasted a 2-1 offering from Jays starter Carlos Villanueva to the seats in right field for his 18th homer on the year.

In the second, Tampa Bay kept rolling. With two men on, Carlos Pena cranked a triple to center that scored both runners. Jose Molina then showed off his power stroke with a homer to left-center, giving the Rays a 5-0 advantage.

The scoring continued in the third, which began with a Longoria single, a Matt Joyce walk and another Jeff Keppinger hit to load the bases. Scott then drove a ball to deep center field that bounced off Colby Rasmus’ glove, allowing a pair of runs to score.

“I felt like I could have thrown the rosin bag up there and they would hit it square,” said Villanueva, who was tagged for seven runs in 2 1/3 innings. “I didn’t let down at any moment, I tried to keep battling after they scored the five runs, to keep it right there, but it was just like anything I threw up there they hit.”

Keppinger added his third single in the fourth, and it went for another RBI as he brought in B.J. Upton for an 8-0 lead.

Four more runs came across in the sixth. Joyce grounded to first with runners at second and third to plate the first one. Keppinger followed with a walk and Scott cranked another double to the right-field gap that brought in two more. Two batters later, Molina grounded into a fielder’s choice to drive in the final run.

“We were on it today up and down the lineup,” Rays manager Joe Maddon said. “A big part of our success more recently is we’re not expanding our strike zone. If we can continue to not expand our strike zone and force the pitcher of the plate, I think we can continue this upsurge.”

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