ST. PETERSBURG -- J.A. Happ finally got his wish on Tuesday night when he was inserted into the starting rotation for the first time in a Blue Jays uniform.
The veteran left-hander transitioned back into his customary starting role after beginning his tenure in Toronto pitching out of the bullpen. The final result wasn't necessarily ideal, but still a step in the right direction for someone who entered on a limited pitch count and hadn't started in almost three weeks.
Happ surrendered four runs in 4 1/3 innings but his debut took a back seat to James Shields' strong performance in Toronto's 4-1 loss to the Rays on Tuesday night at Tropicana Field.
"The results are the only thing that matters, but I did feel better than the numbers indicate, and I felt like I was making some good pitches," Happ said. "They used the whole field and they were falling for them tonight, and weren't falling for us. Frustrating one for sure."
When Happ was acquired from Houston as part of a 10-player trade on July 20 it was generally assumed that it was only a matter of time before he found a spot in the rotation. It took a little longer than expected, but the plan was officially put into motion in Tampa after fellow lefty Brett Cecil was optioned to the Minors over the weekend.
Happ hadn't started since July 16 and there were some signs of rust during the early innings. Happ surrendered one run in the second on an RBI single to Sean Rodriguez and two more in the third on back-to-back sacrifice flies by Evan Longoria and Jeff Keppinger.
The 29-year-old Happ then recorded his second 1-2-3 inning in the fourth before finding himself in more trouble during the following frame. Tampa Bay's Desmond Jennings led off with a double to left and came around to score two batters later on an RBI double by Ben Zobrist.
Happ was removed from the game after that at-bat and was charged with all four runs on seven hits. He threw 49 of his 82 pitches for strikes while walking just one and striking out five. Not his best performance, but Happ felt there were a lot of positives to take away from the game.
"To be honest, the worst pitch I thought was the leadoff hitter in the fifth inning," Happ said. "I left that ball down the middle, it started off with a double. Other than that, I felt like the two-seamer was working, and felt like I was getting ahead of guys. I don't know, I don't know how they did some of the hits they had but they fell and that's why sometimes it's frustrating."
Right-hander Brandon Lyon entered in the fifth to limit the Rays' attack and he eventually gave way to Chad Jenkins. The 24-year-old went three scoreless innings while striking out two during his Major League debut.
Jenkins was promoted from Double-A New Hampshire on Sunday and while he could eventually become a candidate to start, he was called up to pitch in long relief. The first game went off without a hitch -- even though Jenkins later admitted that he almost face-planted on his way to the mound after catching a cleat in the AstroTurf.
"It has been a long time coming that's for sure," said Jenkins, who struggled at the beginning of the year in Double-A and finished with a 4.96 ERA. "As everybody has seen, there were a few times this year that I wasn't sure I was going to get it. I'll always remember this one."
Toronto's offense was held mostly in check by Shields, who was an inning short of collecting his second complete game of the year. The lone bright spot for Toronto came in the fourth inning when Colby Rasmus led off with a solo home run to right field.
It's the second time in Rasmus' career that he has reached the 20-homer plateau and the feat was accomplished on a day when he was questionable to play because of a strained groin.
Shields was almost perfect from that point on -- he allowed just two hits while walking one and striking out six in eight innings of work. Shields has now allowed just one run over his past 17 innings and appears to be finding the form that made him one of the league's most imposing pitchers in 2011.
"I felt pretty good," said Shields, who lowered his ERA to 4.08. "It's nice to go deep into the game and get a quality start underneath my belt -- and also get a win. Hopefully I can roll from here on out."
The Blue Jays have now lost 13 of their past 17 games against the Rays dating to 2011. Toronto also has lost 15 consecutive road series against Tampa Bay and is in danger of making it 16 unless the club can win the final two games of this three-game set.