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TOR@TB: Villanueva holds Rays to three runs over six

ST. PETERSBURG -- Carlos Villanueva has dealt with more than his fair share of adversity in the past couple of weeks, but he didn't let it show on Wednesday night.

The veteran right-hander made his return to the Blue Jays rotation following a brief absence due to a family member's illness and picked up right where he left off.

Villanueva had just one bad inning, but with the Blue Jays offense continuing to struggle, that was all it took to end up on the losing end of a 3-2 game to the Rays at Tropicana Field.

"It was a game that stayed close until the end," said Villanueva, whose team has now lost 14 of its past 18 games to Tampa Bay dating back to 2011. "We seem to struggle, for some reason, ever since I've been here the past two years playing in this park.

"We need to manufacture some runs. Our offense is missing some key guys. As starting pitchers, we need to have the game under control ... I kept it close and we made it close in the end, but they outpitched us today."

Villanueva was working on six days' rest after departing the team last weekend for the Dominican Republic. He made the trip to his native country because an immediate family member went down with a life-threatening virus which stemmed from a mosquito bite.

The 28-year-old Villanueva returned on Tuesday with a clear mind, knowing things were getting better at home and only showed a few signs of rust with the extended break. His command wasn't quite as sharp as normal, but he once again was able to find a way to grind through an outing and continue his strong run as a starter, despite the loss.

"I went back home and I did everything that I would have done here," said Villanueva, who has a 3.27 ERA in seven starts. "Actually, my mind is in a better place now that I know everything back home is fine. Obviously, coming out with a win [instead of] a loss would make it a lot easier to swallow, but keep battling and find a way to win."

Villanueva got through the first two innings unscathed but got himself into a jam in the third. He surrendered back-to-back doubles to Desmond Jennings and B.J. Upton en route to Tampa's first run. Evan Longoria then brought home another run on a ground-ball double play, while Jeff Keppinger later added an RBI single to make it 3-1.

The seven-year veteran managed to get through another three innings without allowing the Rays to get back on the scoreboard. He was charged with all three runs on six hits while striking out seven and walking three. Villanueva has surrendered three runs or fewer in all but one of his seven starts this season. He also has pitched at least six innings in four of those outings and is 4-2 as a starter.

"Carlos, for the extra couple of days down, may have affected a little bit of the overall command," Blue Jays manager John Farrell said. "But still, six innings, three runs, he more than did his job tonight."

Villanueva deserved a better fate, but injury problems continue to plague Toronto's performance at the plate. The Blue Jays have been trying to get by without the services of Jose Bautista, Brett Lawrie, Adam Lind and J.P. Arencibia, but there are noticeable holes in a lineup that at times looks like one that would have been used in Spring Training.

Toronto has been forced to rely on several rookies in its batting order, while some of the more proven veterans are struggling to find a groove. Yunel Escobar and Kelly Johnson have combined to hit just .203 (15-for-74) on the current nine-game road trip while Jeff Mathis (3-for-26) and Rajai Davis (9-for-36) haven't fared any better.

The lack of offense has led to a 2-7 slide while the Blue Jays have averaged just 2.6 runs per game over that span. There are obvious factors at play, but Villanueva doesn't want anyone searching for excuses.

"We have to step up, because it is what it is," Villanueva said. "We miss Jose, we miss Brett, we miss J.P. But like I said before, nobody is going to feel sorry for us. Other teams are just more ready to attack us.

"We're mixing and matching, we're trying to find a lineup that works. I think you have to go out there and pitch your game."

The lone bright spot on Wednesday night against Rays right-hander Alex Cobb came in the third inning when Davis and Colby Rasmus both reached base before Edwin Encarnacion recorded a sacrifice fly.

That was the only run surrendered by Cobb, who allowed just five hits while striking out seven and not walking a single batter. First baseman David Cooper then managed to cut into the lead with a solo home run in the ninth, but it was too little, too late.

"I wouldn't say it was the best stuff [of my career], but it's up there," Cobb said. "I had a good game."

With the loss, the Blue Jays have now dropped 16 consecutive road series to the Rays, which moves into a tie for the third-worst skid in American League history. Toronto will look to avoid the three-game sweep in the series finale on Thursday afternoon.

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