ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — The Tampa Bay Rays have turned their steady focus into an early lead in the AL East.
Jason Bartlett and Ben Zobrist drove in two runs apiece during a seven-run eighth inning, John Jaso hit his first major league homer and the Rays beat the Toronto Blue Jays 9-3 on Saturday night.
"We have one gear right now and I love it … full out," Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon said.
B.J. Upton tied it at 3 on an RBI single in the eighth off Scott Downs (0-2). Pinch-hitter Reid Brignac drew a bases-loaded walk from Casey Janssen, who also hit Jaso with a pitch as the Rays took a 5-3 lead. Bartlett and Zobrist added two-run singles to make it 9-3.
"That's going to happen once in a while," Toronto manager Cito Gaston said. "We just have to bounce back [Sunday] and hope that we get into the eighth with a lead again and see what happens."
Tampa Bay (13-5) is off to the best start in franchise history. The Rays, who have a half-game lead over the New York Yankees, have come from behind to win seven times.
Jaso, a late insertion into the lineup, gave the Rays a 2-1 lead in the fifth with a two-run shot against Ricky Romero. He got the start after catcher Dioner Navarro was scratched due to soreness in his lower right leg.
"It was the first one. Hopefully there's some more to follow," Jaso said.
Adam Lind and Lyle Overbay homered for the Blue Jays, who had their six-game road winning streak snapped. Toronto hasn't won seven in a row away from home since August 1996.
Dan Wheeler (1-0) struck out Alex Gonzalez with two on and two outs in the eighth.
The Blue Jays went up 3-2 on Lind's two-run homer in the sixth off Jeff Niemann. Overbay, who entered hitting .127, put Toronto ahead 1-0 in the fifth with his first homer this season.
Niemann gave up three runs, five hits and one walk while striking out eight in 6 2/3 innings. The right-hander retired his first eight batters before Travis Snider reached on an infield single.
Romero went seven innings, allowing two runs and six hits. The left-hander woke up Saturday with a sore throat and felt dizzy at times during the game due to a cold.
"At that point, you just pitch with your heart and leave it all out there," Romero said.
Toronto loaded the bases with two outs in the seventh, but failed to score when Randy Choate struck out Fred Lewis. Tampa Bay put a runner on third with none out in the seventh, but Romero worked out of the jam.
"Each person has his job, and basically that's mine, to get those tough left-handers out," Choate said. "We have a lot of good hitters. We're pretty hot right now, hitting the ball and scoring runs. If we hold them down long enough, eventually I think we can win most of the games."
Jaso was recalled from Triple-A Durham on April 13 to be the backup catcher when Kelly Shoppach went on the disabled list with a right knee injury.
The announced crowd for the contest, which included a postgame concert by Rock and Roll Hall of Famer John Fogerty, was 23,870.
Rays DH Pat Burrell was out of the lineup because of a stiff upper back. Maddon said Burrell should play on Sunday. … Overbay stole second in the seventh for his 13th career stolen base. He has played in 1,002 major league games. … Cuban SS prospect Adeiny Hechavarria was hitless in three at-bats as the DH in his first game with Toronto's extended spring training team. The 21-year-old agreed to a $10 million, four-year contract with the Blue Jays this month.