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Rays 6, Blue Jays 2

Damon, Rays tighten wild-card race

Tampa Bay’s Johnny Damon (left) is greeted at home plate by B.J. Upton (right) and Evan Longoria after his three-run homer in the eighth inning off Toronto’s Ricky Romero. Tampa Bay’s Johnny Damon (left) is greeted at home plate by B.J. Upton (right) and Evan Longoria after his three-run homer in the eighth inning off Toronto’s Ricky Romero. (Steve Nesius/Reuters)
Associated Press / September 25, 2011

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ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. - Johnny Damon found his power swing at the perfect time for Tampa Bay.

Damon hit a three-run homer last night and the Rays beat the Toronto Blue Jays, 6-2, to move within 1 1/2 games of the Red Sox in the AL wild-card race.

“I feel real good about our chances, and if we can somehow get to the playoffs with our pitching staff and our defense, we have a nice shot at winning,’’ Damon said.

Damon connected with two out in the eighth, giving the Rays a four-run lead. Damon’s third hit of the game came after shortstop Mike McCoy mishandled Evan Longoria’s grounder for an error and Ben Zobrist flied out for the second out in the inning.

“You give a team an extra out, a lot of times a crooked number is going to end up on the board and that was the case tonight,’’ Blue Jays manager John Farrell said.

Damon has 2,720 hits, one away from tying Lou Gehrig for 57th place on the career list. The designated hitter is 5 for 7 with two homers and seven RBIs in his last three games.

Rookie reliever Alex Torres (1-1) threw five shutout innings to earn his first big league win in his fourth game this season. The lefthander replaced Jeff Niemann to start the second and allowed three hits.

Damon also had a run-scoring double in the first as the Rays won for the second time in six games.

“We can’t control what happens in the New York-Boston series . . . We have to worry about what we can control, and hopefully this is a big pick-me-up,’’ Damon said.

Jose Bautista hit his major league-leading 43d homer for the Blue Jays, who had won seven of 11. Ricky Romero (15-11) gave up six runs - one earned - and six hits over 7 2/3 innings.

“It’s disappointing,’’ Romero said. “I don’t want to be the reason they go the playoffs. We want to win every game here on out.’’

After Brandon Gomes and Joel Peralta worked scoreless innings, closer Kyle Farnsworth pitched a perfect ninth in a non-save situation. Farnsworth had been out since Sept. 11 due to a sore right elbow.

The eight scoreless innings by the Rays’ bullpen set a team record for a single game.

“If you had told us at the beginning of spring training we’d be in this position right now, I think we’d all take it,’’ Rays manager Joe Maddon said.

Tampa Bay went ahead, 3-2, in the fourth on Zobrist’s solo homer. He has gone deep three times over his last seven games after going 39 games without a home run.

Bautista put the Blue Jays up, 2-0, during the first when he lined a 3-and-2 pitch from Niemann into the left-field seats. Toronto failed to extend the lead later in the inning when David Cooper bounced out with runners on second and third.

Niemann had his scheduled start pushed back from Thursday because of a sore upper back.

“There was a little bit of residual soreness but I was a little bit off and these are must-win games for us, so that’s what happened,’’ Niemann said.

A series of defensive blunders helped the Rays tie it at 2 in the bottom of the first. B.J. Upton singled one pitch after Cooper was charged with an error at first for misplaying a foul ball. Upton then scored when McCoy was given an error after making an errant throw to first on Zobrist’s two-out grounder.

Zobrist came home when Damon flared a ball to short center that dropped between second baseman Kelly Johnson and center fielder Colby Rasmus for a double.

“That’s miscommunication,’’ Farrell said. “That’s a ball that’s got to be caught. You’d like to see Colby take charge right there and record the out.’’

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