ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- Tampa Bay's suddenly potent bats are giving the Rays renewed hope for their playoff chase.
Ben Zobrist and Jose Molina homered in support of a strong pitching performance by James Shields, and the Rays beat the Toronto Blue Jays 12-1 to pull within 4 1/2 games of the Oakland Athletics in the American League wild-card race on Friday night.
"It was pretty promising today," slugger Evan Longoria said. "I saw a lot of spark and life we haven't seen in the dugout as of late. You hope it's not too little, too late."
The Rays won for only the fourth time in 11 games, but the three-game winning streak that has followed manager Joe Maddon's decision to shut down batting practice and allow players to arrive at the ballpark a little later has revived the possibility of finishing strong and making the playoffs for the fourth time in five years.
Maddon changed the pregame routine after his offence continued to sputter in losing Monday and Tuesday to begin a four-game series against Boston. After scoring 13 runs on Wednesday, the Rays used a six-run ninth to beat the Red Sox again Thursday and finished with 16 hits Friday.
"At some point, you've just got to say: 'Hey, it ain't working this way. Just let me chill out a little bit and go out there and play a little,"' Maddon said. "I think for the most part, a lot of the guys are starting to find that more relaxed zone to play to in and hit in."
"I totally, absolutely believe we can do this. I firmly believe that," Maddon added. "Again, it's about a bunch of one-game winning streaks on our part. We're very capable. We have the pitching to do it, and I do believe guys are fresh. ... We have to keep playing, keep applying pressure to (teams) that are slightly above us."
Shields (15-9) limited the Blue Jays to six singles over seven shutout innings to improve to 7-2 over his past 10 starts. The right-hander struck out nine to reach 200 for the second straight year, and when he fanned J.P. Arencibia leading off the second inning, the Rays broke the AL record for strikeouts in a season.
Luke Scott drove in four runs with a pair of doubles for the Rays, who trail the first-place Yankees by 6 1/2 games in the AL East.
"We can't really look up too much," Longoria said. "But if we can continue to do what we did tonight, we should put ourselves in a good spot. But the bottom line is we've got to win."
Zobrist hit a solo homer in the first and Molina had a two-run shot in the second against Carlos Villanueva (7-6), who allowed seven runs and eight hits in 2 1-3 innings.
"I didn't let down at any moment. I tried to keep battling. ... But it was like, anything I threw up there they hit," Villanueva said.
"A big part of our success more recently is we're not expanding our strike zone," Maddon said. "If we can continue to not expand our strike zone and force the pitcher over the plate, I think we can continue this upsurge."
Rays pitchers began the night with 1,264 strikeouts, two shy of the 2001 Yankees. Shields struck out Brett Lawrie and Edwin Encarnacion in the first, then got Arencibia swinging on a 2-2 pitch to begin the second.
The major league record is 1,404, set by the Chicago Cubs in 2003. The Rays have 1,275 with 11 games remaining.
Blue Jays shortstop Yunel Escobar remained out of the starting lineup despite being eligible to return after serving a three-game suspension for wearing eye-black displaying an anti-gay slur written in Spanish during a game last weekend against Boston. He entered the game as a pinch hitter in the eighth inning and singled off Brandon Gomes.
Yan Gomes followed with a double that drove in Toronto's only run.
Blue Jays manager John Farrell said Escobar, who served the penalty this week during a trio of losses to the Yankees, may be back in the lineup on Saturday.
"When we met earlier today it became increasing clear during that discussion that he needs another day to get back and be ready to play a major league game," Farrell said. "It's not so much staying in shape or baseball activity, it's just about how he's dealing with the fallout of what he did. He's remorseful for what took place, and as a result he needs another day to get things in line."
Villanueva won his first six decisions this season, but he's won once over his past 10 starts -- a 2-0 victory over Tampa Bay at home on Aug. 30. He dropped to 0-3 lifetime at Tropicana Field, where he's yielded five homers, 18 earned runs and 24 hits in 12 innings.
NOTES: Rays batters also have struck out at a prolific pace this season. They fanned just five times Friday night, but have 1,230 with 11 games left. They are the first team in AL history to have at least 1,200 strikeouts on both offence and defence. The league record is 1,324 by the 2007 Devil Rays. ... The Blue Jays traded C Yorvit Torrealba to the Milwaukee Brewers in exchange for a player to be named or cash. ... Dating to 2007, Toronto has lost 16 consecutive road series against the Rays, who have won six of the seven games the teams have played at Tropicana Field this year. ... Tampa Bay Lightning coach Guy Boucher used a hockey stick to shoot the ceremonial first pitch from the mound across home plate.