TORONTO (AP) — Heading into a critical stretch of games with playoff implications, the Tampa Bay Rays are looking like contenders again.
David Price earned his AL-leading 17th victory with 6 2-3 solid innings and Ben Francisco homered in his first start for Tampa Bay as the Rays won their second straight to salvage a series split against the Toronto Blue Jays, 9-4 on Sunday.
The win capped a tough 3-4 road trip for the Rays that saw them drop several games by one run only to fall further behind the division-leading New York Yankees in the AL East.
“I’m really proud of the way we’ve handled all of these moments,” manager Joe Maddon said. “I know we lost some really harsh games and it’s easy to go away after those loses and we didn’t go away.”
Carlos Pena also homered as the Rays won their second straight and third in nine games, pulling within 3 1/2 games of the Yankees, who begin a three-game series at Tampa Bay on Monday.
“This is going to be a race to the end,” outfielder B.J. Upton said. “We still got our work cut out for us but I think we’re in a good position.”
After the Yankees, the Rays will host the Texas Rangers before a visit to the Baltimore Orioles — two teams both in the playoff hunt.
“We have time to do this,” Maddon said. “I know we believe that we can do this.”
Price (17-5) gave up two runs, six hits and four walks while striking out five in a rebound game after a rare bad outing in Texas, where he was tagged by the Rangers for six runs and 10 hits.
The All-Star lefty is 9-1 in his last 14 starts overall and improved to 12-2 in his career against Toronto.
Price credited the Rays’ offense for making it easy for him to get back on track.
“They’ve done a good job all year hitting for me, especially early in the game, it makes it a lot easier for me to go out there and try and pound the strike zone,” he said. “The offense did a great job of putting up a lot of runs.”
Blue Jays ace Ricky Romero (8-13) lost his 12th straight decision. He allowed a run in the first inning, then faced seven batters in the second and all of them reached base.
The Rays got to Romero with six runs in the big second, starting when Francisco — acquired in a trade with Houston on Friday — hit a solo shot over the left-field wall.
Romero walked Pena, Ryan Roberts doubled and Jose Molina hit an RBI single to shallow center field. Desmond Jennings singled to the exact same spot to make it 4-0.
Upton’s routine fly ball became a single when right fielder Moses Sierra lost the ball in the sun and let it drop. With the bases loaded, Ben Zobrist hit a two-run single that ended Romero’s day. An RBI grounder by Jeff Keppinger put the Rays ahead 7-0.
“Going through something like this, I would never wish upon anyone,” Romero said. “It’s tough. I’ve had advice from a lot of people, even from opponents, the guy who pitched against me today and their all-star third baseman, a lot of guys on other teams.
“(They say) ‘keep going, keep moving forward, you can’t dwell on the past. It’s going to turn around.'”
Price had some trouble of his own in the second inning when he loaded the bases with walks to Adam Lind, Yunel Escobar and Mike McCoy, but the Jays failed to capitalize.
Pena sent the first pitch he saw in the third over the center-field wall for his 17th homer.
Tampa Bay did more damage in the fourth when Evan Longoria hit a ground-rule double, Keppinger singled and Francisco hit an RBI double.
Edwin Encarnacion hit a sacrifice fly in the seventh and Lind had an RBI single that finished Price.
Encarnacion hit his 37th homer, a two-run drive, in the ninth.
NOTES: Rays manager Joe Maddon says RHP Jeff Niemann, who left in the fourth inning of Saturday’s game, is still day-to-day with a “general shoulder malaise.” … Tampa Bay will start RHP James Shields (12-8, 3.91 ERA) on Monday against Yankees LHP CC Sabathia (13-4, 3.40). Toronto opens a three-game homestand against the Baltimore Orioles on Labor Day.
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.