TORONTO - Cito Gaston wasn't too concerned with Roy Halladay's performance Monday. Despite losing 4-1 to the Tampa Bay Rays, the Toronto Blue Jays manager was just happy to have his ace back in the lineup.
"He's good, that's the good news," said Gaston. "I think maybe his location wasn't quite as good as he would like it to be but still and that's perfect. He got one pitch up but if a guy goes out there and gives up a couple of runs you'd take that every night."
Halladay (10-2) pitched well enough over six innings in his first start in 17 days but took the loss and Jeff Niemann (7-4) allowed four, hits two walks and one run through 7 1/3 innings to earn the win as the Rays won their sixth in a row.
Randy Choate took over from Dan Wheeler to get the final out to pick up his fourth save.
The game played before 15,665 at the Rogers Centre was the first of the year between the teams as the Blue Jays return to playing within the American League East following interleague play.
Halladay used 88 pitches in giving up five hits and left for Jeremy Accardo with the Blue Jays trailing 2-0 on Carl Crawford's seventh home run of the season on an elevated 1-1 curveball in the third inning.
Halladay struck out seven and walked two his first start since June 12 against the Florida Marlins when he suffered a mild groin strain on his first batter of the fourth inning and had to come out of the game.
Halladay said he had no problems from the injury or from the layoff.
"Throwing in the bullpen everything was fine," Halladay said. "I didn't feel like I hadn't thrown in a long time. It's just a matter of consistency sometimes."
Halladay lamented the walk to B.J. Upton that preceded Crawford's homer and the pitch that the Rays' left fielder knocked over the fence.
"I just made a poor pitch," Halladay said. "Curveball kind of middle-in, up. It just has to be down more really. Just the one pitch cost me and I pitched behind a little bit there in the early going. But as far as stuff (was concerned) I felt it was good and felt everything was where it needed to be. I just have to pitch ahead a little bit better."
Accardo gave up two runs in the seventh, one on Pat Burrell's third homer of the season on a 1-1 slider to lead off the inning and the other on Upton's sacrifice fly. Two of Accardo's outs in the inning were on steal attempts at second.
Niemann, a 26-year-old rookie, was making his 15th start of the season and the 17th of his major-league career and reduced his earned-run average to 3.95 in pitching past the fifth inning for only the second time in his past six starts.
"You look at tape on the guy and he was all over the place on the most of the tapes we've seen," Gaston said. "But he threw strikes tonight and got his breaking ball over. That's the key, throwing strikes."
"He had a lot of late life on his pitches," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "I saw a lot of late life on the fastball and some really good depth on the curveball."
Niemann was removed after Rod Barajas's run-scoring single with one out in the eighth.
Halladay struck out the game's first batter, Upton, and the next two batters reached base, Crawford on a single and Evan Longoria on a walk. But Carlos Pena grounded into a double play.
Blue Jays third baseman Scott Rolen hit a double to lead off the second inning to give him a career-high 17-game hit string. He stole third where he was stranded.
Crawford hit his homer after Upton opened the inning with the walk, stole second despite a pitch out and took third on Barajas's throwing error.
Jose Bautista, who has started at third and in left field this season, started for the first time in right field this season and he passed his first test in the fourth inning when he threw out Gabe Gross who was trying for a double. Regular right-fielder Alex Rios was rested and Russ Adams made his second start in left field.
Notes: Barajas started Monday for the first time since he strained his right hamstring in the second inning when he hit a single in a 6-1 victory over the Philadelphia Phillies. . . The Blue Jays have signed two more players from the draft, their ninth-round pick Aaron Loup, a left-handed pitcher from Tulane University and 19-round pick Ryan Tepera, a right-handed pitcher from Sam Houston State University. The Blue Jays have signed 24 players from this month's draft. . . Matt Garza (5-5, 3.61 earned-run average) will start for the Rays Tuesday against Scott Richmond (6-4, 3.68 ERA).