ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – Carlos Pena insists his confidence never wavered.
Mired in a season-long slump that’s dropped his batting average well below .200, Tampa Bay’s struggling slugger is beginning to show indications of breaking out.
Pena homered twice and drove in five runs to back unbeaten Jeff Niemann’s two-hit pitching Tuesday night, helping the AL East-leading Rays beat the Toronto Blue Jays 9-0.
“It’s a good sign,” said Pena, who hit a solo shot and a grand slam, giving him three homers in his last two games as he tries to hit his way out of a funk after sharing the AL home run title with Mark Teixeira last year.
“It just feels good to contribute with the bat. It really does,” added Pena, who has 11 homers and 39 RBIs but is batting .183 with a major league-leading 64 strikeouts.
Niemann (6-0) didn’t allow a runner past first base, limiting the Blue Jays to singles by Mike McCoy and Adam Lind en route to his third career shutout.
Toronto was hitless until McCoy’s sharp grounder eluded third baseman Evan Longoria and shortstop Reid Brignac, who both dove but were unable to keep the ball from reaching the outfield with one out in the sixth.
“A foot either way,” Niemann said, “it might have been an out.”
Lind led off the seventh with his hit that fell in front of left-fielder Gabe Kapler. The six-foot-nine Niemann, who walked one and struck out six, retired the next nine batters to end the game.
“He’s a tall young man. He’s deceptive. He can pitch. He didn’t make too many mistakes,” said Toronto’s Vernon Wells, who went 0 for 3, ending a season-best 14-game hitting streak. “When you’ve got that kind of stuff and you’re not making mistakes over the middle of the plate, you’re not going to give up many hits.”
Pena entered batting just .175, lowest in the majors among players with a qualifying number of at-bats. His solo homer off Brian Tallet (1-2) gave Tampa Bay a 1-0 lead in the fourth, and his seventh career slam — off another left-hander, Rommie Lewis — finished a seven-run fifth that made it 8-0.
“It’s a nice game to build off,” said Rays manager Joe Maddon, who reiterated his belief that far too much is made of Pena’s batting average.
Pena rarely has hit for average during his 10-year major league career. However, only four players — Ryan Howard, Prince Fielder, Albert Pujols and Adam Dunn — have more homers since 2007. When he gets hot, Pena is capable of carrying the Rays — often for weeks at a time.
“At some point this year,” Maddon said, “he’s going to get back to that.”
Longoria and Willy Aybar drove in two runs apiece for the Rays, who have won 11 of 13 against the Blue Jays at Tropicana Field over the past two seasons.
The Blue Jays only managed to get two balls out of the infield against Niemann through five innings. Wells lined to Kapler to end the first, and Jose Bautista hit a routine fly to right-fielder Ben Zobrist to begin the fifth.
Niemann, who won 13 games as a rookie last season, also pitched a two-hit shutout against Kansas City on June 3, 2009. Just more than a month later, he tossed a seven-hit shutout against Oakland.
Tallet pitched four-plus innings, allowing five runs and six hits in his second start — both against the Rays — since returning from a stint on the 15-day disabled list with a left forearm strain. He worked five scoreless innings against Tampa Bay on June 1, leaving with a 5-0 lead before the Rays rallied to win 7-6 in Toronto.
Pena was 2 for 17 lifetime with eight strikeouts against the Blue Jays starter before hitting his 10th homer of the season. Longoria’s two-run single made it 3-0, finishing Tallet in the fifth. Aybar followed with an RBI single off Lewis before Pena’s fourth grand slam with Tampa Bay — tying Zobrist for the club record.
Niemann has won seven consecutive decisions dating to last season, matching a franchise record set by Mark Hendrickson in 2005. The right-hander hasn’t lost at home since May 2, 2009, against Boston, a stretch of 16 starts that’s the longest active streak in the majors.
NOTES: Toronto manager Cito Gaston said Tallet pitched despite a stomach virus. … Blue Jays SS Alex Gonzalez missed the game to take care of a personal matter. He is expected back Wednesday. … Rays CF B.J. Upton, hitting .229 but coming off a three-hit game against Texas, was moved into the leadoff spot for the first two games of this series. … Gaston said INF John McDonald could soon be placed on the bereavement list. McDonald has been away from the team for the past four games to be with his seriously ill father. … Rays LF Carl Crawford had the night off.