ST. PETERSBURG — 1B Carlos Peña may have delivered the big hit of the Rays' third inning to break the game open.
But it was LF Carl Crawford's speed that set it all up.
With two outs and nobody on, Crawford hit a slow grounder to second and raced up the line. Blue Jays 2B Aaron Hill charged and bobbled it for an error, keeping the inning alive. After Evan Longoria's infield single, Peña hit a three-run homer to put the Rays up 5-1.
"It was a close play, so I was going to be hustling anyway," Crawford said. "That's the way we've been playing and that's the way we have to play."
Said Peña: "The other teams know we're going to run the bases hard, and it creates a lot of havoc. There's a lot of pressure. Next thing you know, it gives us another opportunity for one more at-bat."
LHP Brett Cecil said "it's not an error in my book," adding, "You can't fault a guy for trying to make a great play." While Hill declined to comment, 1B Adam Lind said, "I'm sure Hilly was thinking the same (thing as me), I've got to get rid of it."
Said manager Joe Maddon: "That's the beauty of speed. But it's also the beauty of playing the game hard and playing the game right all the time. That moment was caused by our reputation and Carl's reputation of running to first base."
BIG OUT: RHP reliever Chad Qualls got one of the biggest outs, striking out slugger Jose Bautista with two on and two out in the eighth. He said it has been a confidence-builder coming through for the Rays after struggling for the first half of the season with the Diamondbacks. Maddon said Qualls is getting better each outing.
"It means a lot," Qualls said. "Like I said, after you get your butt kicked for four months, it just kicks you down, kicks you down. It's nice to finally go out there and do what you know you're capable of."
BACK ON TRACK: RHP Jeff Niemann says he has worked hard to "get things right" after a rough last start in Anaheim, when he gave up a career-high 10 runs.
Niemann, who lasted just 3⅓ innings in his first outing since coming off the disabled list (shoulder strain), feels good physically and likes where he's at heading into tonight's game with Toronto.
Maddon said it won't take long to figure out if Niemann has turned the corner.
"It's all about command with his fastball," Maddon said. "When he's going through that first inning, if that ball is going where he wants it to go command-wise, he's going to have a good night."
LEANING LEFT: RHPs Joaquin Benoit and Rafael Soriano have received much credit for the bullpen's success, and deservedly so.
But Maddon said LHP Randy Choate has also been a "rock," getting huge outs against left-handed hitters, including David Ortiz and J.D. Drew in the weekend Red Sox series. Choate has a 0.68 ERA in his past 23 appearances, allowing one run over 131/3 innings.
"As long as we're able to put him in the right situation, he's one of the best in the business right now," Maddon said. "Bringing a lefty out of your bullpen one-on-one with a good left-handed hitter, he's as good as it gets right now."
Choate leads the majors with 70 appearances (26 one-batter ones). Righties have hit .412 against him but lefties just .196 .
"He's been nails, man," Maddon said. "The other thing, he's so durable. He never needs a day off. He's been extremely valuable."
MInor matters: RHP Grant Balfour (intercostal strain) had a much better rehab outing for Class A Charlotte Monday, retiring all three batters he faced. … Brad Hawpe went 1-for-2 with two walks as DH for Charlotte and could get called up after tonight's game. … The Gulf Coast League Rays will play the GCL Phillies at noon today at Bright House Field in Clearwater in Game 1 of the best-of-three championship series.
MIscellany: Monday was the shortest game at Tropicana Field this season (2 hours, 14 minutes) and the shortest at the Trop since May 9, 2008 (2:13). … The Rays are a major-league best 31-14 against left-handed starters.