While the Tampa Bay Rays managed to stay relevant during Evan Longoria's absence, they look all the more like contenders with him in the lineup.
The Rays try for an eighth win in nine meetings with the Toronto Blue Jays as these AL East rivals continue a three-game set Wednesday night at Tropicana Field.
After failing to score in each of its previous two games, Tampa Bay (57-52) took Tuesday's series opener 4-1. James Shields threw eight strong innings while Longoria - playing his first game since April 30 - went 1 for 3 with an RBI. The three-time All-Star third baseman missed 85 games with a partially torn left hamstring.
"It's weird going into a game just trying to make it out healthy," he said. "Sometimes it's little things that are important, and today was huge stepping stone. There was nothing about today that was negative. No setbacks, I felt great."
Tampa Bay went 41-44 during Longoria's absence but has won nine of its last 10 when he plays. Longoria is batting .329 with four homers and 20 RBIs in 24 games.
"I'm just as happy as anyone else that Longo is back," Shields said. "Just to see him back in the clubhouse and see him out on the field. He's the leader in this clubhouse, that's what it comes down to."
The Rays have taken seven of their last eight meetings with the Blue Jays, outscoring Toronto 51-26.
Loser of seven of nine overall, Toronto (53-56) tries to bounce back behind Carlos Villanueva (6-1, 3.19 ERA). After winning a career-best four consecutive starts, the right-hander surrendered four runs and seven hits over six innings of a 5-3 loss at Seattle last Wednesday to suffer his first defeat of the season.
"It's very frustrating," he told MLB's official website. "I thought today I had the best fastball command I've had maybe since I started. The problem, the only problem, was my slider to lefties, the backdoor slider, I just couldn't get it down and in enough."
In his lone start versus Tampa Bay, Villanueva was tagged for a career-high eight runs and nine hits over 2 2-3 innings of a 9-1 road loss Aug. 3, 2011. He's also struggled in three relief appearances against the Rays this season, yielding seven runs in three innings. Six of those runs came during a 12-2 defeat April 18.
Villanueva can't be looking forward to facing Ben Zobrist, who's taken him deep three times in five at-bats.
The Rays will turn to Alex Cobb (5-8, 4.60), who snapped a career worst-tying three-start losing streak with an impressive display last Wednesday. The right-hander scattered four hits and struck out six over seven innings of one-run ball in a 4-1 victory at Oakland.
"That was more what he looked like in July last year when he came up and helped us out," manager Joe Maddon said of Cobb, who went 3-2 with a 3.42 ERA over nine starts in 2011. "Better command of his fastball, threw some really good curveballs. Changeup had more depth."
Cobb, who has never faced Toronto, has compiled a 6.75 ERA while losing each of his last three home starts.
It's unknown if he'll have to face Brett Lawrie, who missed his third straight contest Tuesday with tightness in his rib cage. The third baseman is mired in a 3-for-21 (.143) slump.