ST. PETERSBURG — For three innings, Jeremy Hellickson danced his way into and out of trouble.
By the fourth inning, the former American League Rookie of the Year once again departed for the showers early, failing to pitch into the sixth inning for the sixth time in 10 starts since returning from elbow surgery in July. Hellickson lasted a season-low 3 1/3 innings before departing after a three-run home run off the bat of Jose Reyes chased the Rays’ starter and led Toronto to a 8-2 victory in front of an announced crowd of 10,125 at Tropicana Field, the second lowest announced attendance of the season.
The loss for Tampa Bay (67-72) dropped the Rays to 6-11 since reaching the .500 mark on Aug. 15.
The Reyes home run was the second of the game for Toronto off Hellickson (1-3), who allowed eight hits during his outing, giving up five runs before the bullpen came in to try to keep the Blue Jays offense at bay.
“You have to make really good pitches and hope they hit the ball at somebody,’’ Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon said of facing the Blue Jays. “They are really good, and then with Dickey, you have to outpitch them as well.’’
Toronto Knuckleball pitcher R.A. Dickey (11-12), meanwhile, had his knuckler dancing most of the night in limiting the Rays’ offense to two hits in his seven innings of work retiring 17 of the final 20 batters he faced. Though Dickey did walk three hitters and hit two others, Tampa Bay did little to mount a threat against the 2012 National League Cy Young Award winner, managing to score a pair of runs in the second on a bloop base hit by Ryan Hanigan and a sacrifice fly off the bat of Kevin Kiermaier that provided Tampa Bay a 2-1 lead at the time.
The lead was short lived, however, when Toronto put the first four batters on base in the top of the third to tie the game. Hellickson was on the ropes when he walked Edwin Encarnacion to load the bases with none out. But Adam Lind bounced back to Hellickson, who started a 1-2-3 double play, and Danny Valencia - who homered in the second inning - flew out to right as the Rays escaped giving up the big inning.
The crooked number, however, came the very next inning when Kevin Pillar and Josh Thole both hit one-out infield singles to the hole at shortstop before Reyes deposited a 3-2 fast ball from Hellickson into the right-field stands to break the game open and chase the Rays’ starter to the club house.
“Don’t be tap-dancing around, just missing the (strike) zone with two-seamers (fastballs),’’ Maddon said of the game plan for Hellickson heading into the game. “The mind field is at the top of the lineup, don’t take the bottom half light, but the mind field is really in the top five hitters.’’
The first five Toronto hitters combined to go 5-for-13 with two runs, three RBI and a pair of walks off Hellickson.
Handed the three-run lead, Dickey dazzled the Rays’ hitters the rest of the night, only allowing one runner to reach second base before being lifted after seven innings, allowing two hits - none after the second inning single by Hanigan.
Tampa Bay’s bullpen tried to keep the game within reach as Steve Geltz and Brandon Gomes combined to retire 10 of 11 batters they faced in 3 2/3 innings. But Cesar Ramos allowed a run-scoring triple to Ryan Goins in the top of the eighth before former Rays’ All-Star catcher Dioner Navarro launched a pinch-hit, two-run home run deep into the left-field stands to give Toronto a 8-2 lead.