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Shields outdueled as streak ends

Shields outdueled as streak ends

TORONTO -- Rays manager Joe Maddon gushed about the Blue Jays' pitching all series long. He knew his team would need to pitch well to come out on top, no matter who Toronto sent to the mound.

"We had a decent record against them last year, but I'll tell you what," Maddon said before Monday's series opener, "they were all close games and they'd always throw a new pitcher out there that we'd never seen before that was also very good."

The Jays did it again on Wednesday, sending out rookie Ricky Romero against one of baseball's most potent lineups. Romero coupled a mid-90s fastball with a devastating changeup to pick apart Tampa Bay's hitters, sending the Rays to a 5-0 loss at Rogers Centre. For Rays right-hander James Shields, it was another tough-luck loss in which he kept the team alive late in the game but the offense couldn't come through.

The loss snapped a season-high seven-game winning streak for the Rays, who were one of the league's hottest teams in June. Maddon credited the team's march up the standings to improved pitching and defense, as the club's record improved dramatically despite a slight drop-off in offense.

It was the Jays, though, who used pitching and defense to their advantage in the series finale. Romero mowed through the Rays (44-36), shutting them out for eight innings. Only three Tampa Bay batters got on board through the first six innings, while Romero notched six strikeouts -- all on his changeup.

"[Romero has a] good changeup -- really good changeup," Maddon said after the game. "He's got plenty of fastball, he's got a nice changeup, he throws his curve on occasion, but pitches with his change versus righties and lefties. More power to him.

"He's good. He's going to be good for a long time if he stays healthy."

The only Rays batter who had a good day at the plate was second baseman Ben Zobrist, who was 2-for-2 with two walks against Romero. Despite his success at the plate, Zobrist was one of the many Tampa Bay hitters who complimented Romero's changeup.

"He's got a good changeup," Zobrist said. "He placed it pretty well. That's what really benefited him. He kept it down in the zone and, obviously, he didn't leave too many fastballs over the middle of the plate. The ones that we did hit, it seemed like the wind was knocking them down."

It didn't help the Rays that the defense took care of the few baserunners they put aboard against Romero. Center fielder B.J. Upton drew a walk to start the game off, but was picked off with Carl Crawford at the plate. Much like Upton's leadoff homer set the tone in Tampa Bay's 4-1 win the night before, the first-inning pickoff foreshadowed what was to come on Wednesday.

After falling behind, 2-0, the Rays looked as though they might have a chance to score a run or two in the seventh. A pair of base hits by Crawford and first baseman Carlos Pena and a walk to Zobrist loaded the bases.

But Toronto's defense was there to help Romero out of the jam. With one out, the lefty induced a ground ball off the bat of designated hitter Pat Burrell, and shortstop Marco Scutaro tossed the ball to Aaron Hill at second base, who threw to first, turning a double play to end the threat.

The Rays got another two men aboard in the eighth, when a walk by shortstop Jason Bartlett and a fielding error by Scutaro -- the only blemish by the Jays' defense all game -- put runners on first and second with no one out. But pinch-hitter Willy Aybar lined a ball to Scutaro, who made up for his error by doubling off Bartlett at second base.

There was still a man on base with Crawford at the plate, but a fly ball that looked like a sure home run off his bat just didn't carry, falling harmlessly into the glove of right fielder Jose Bautista to end the frame.

"When we got any threats, we didn't get any hits," Zobrist said. "It's a tough one. [Romero] threw really well. Got to give it up for him."

It was the Rays' last real chance to put some runs on the board against Romero (6-3), but they couldn't make the most of it. Shields allowed three runs -- only two earned -- through his first seven innings, keeping his team in the game, but with the offense falling flat, anything less than a flawless outing from Shields wouldn't be enough.

"I thought Shields pitched well," Maddon said. "We just got outpitched today."

Shields gave up back-to-back home runs in the eighth -- solo shots by left fielder Adam Lind and third baseman Scott Rolen -- and that put the game was already out of reach.

"I thought I battled tonight," Shields said. "I was there. I kept us in the game the whole entire game. You give up two runs in the last inning -- nothing you can do about that. I made two bad pitches. You give up three runs until the eighth inning and get two earned runs out of that? That's a good outing."

Romero's performance and the wasted opportunities by the offense sent Shields to a 6-6 record -- a mark that doesn't reflect how well the righty has pitched this year. He leads the team in quality starts, but often has the bad fortune to pitch on days the offense disappears.

"We didn't score," Burrell said. "He definitely did his part. We've just got to score. And we had chances, we just didn't get it done."

Despite the loss, the Rays leave Toronto having taken two of three games in the series. Maddon liked what he saw from his team, but gave credit to the Jays (42-38) for their play on Wednesday -- a strong pitching effort coupled with a burst of power when needed.

"The take-away for me is that we continue to play our game right there, we just got beat today," Maddon said. "They're going to pitch good at you. We've learned that over the last couple of years, so it's always, 'Fasten your chinstraps and you can't make mistakes.' You've got to play the game right to beat them."

The Rays are heading to Texas, where their lineup will have a hitter-friendly ballpark on its side -- and no Romero to deal with.

"You've got to tip your cap to that guy," Shields said. "He did a great job. He's been pitching well lately, ever since he got called up.

"We won two out of three. We're going to go to Texas with our heads held high."

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

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