ST. PETERSBURG — To reliever J.P. Howell, it had "felt like forever" since the Rays last won.
In reality, it was a rough 12 days for Tampa Bay, which carried the burden of a seven-game losing streak into the much-needed All-Star break.
Having dropped from the best record in baseball to second in the American League East, the players returned Thursday refreshed, recharged and refocused on reverting to the form of their first-half run.
And after Friday night's thrilling 2-1 victory over the Blue Jays was clinched in an eerily familiar formula, the Rays finally felt, as James Shields put it, "relief."
From the strong starting pitching (Shields) to the unlikely offensive star (Ben Zobrist) to a clutch hold by the bullpen (Howell and Grant Balfour), this win felt a lot like many of their can-you-believe-it-come-from-behind victories.
But to Shields, this one meant more than just snapping a season-long losing streak and allowing the Rays (56-39) to move back into first place (thanks to Boston's 11-3 loss to the Angels).
"I think it sets the tone for the whole second half," Shields said. "If you talk to me three weeks from now, I think you'll find (Friday's game was) a big win."
Shields (8-6) set the tone with another strong home start.
In a pitcher's duel, Shields matched A.J. Burnett inning for inning, scattering just four hits over seven innings. Shields' only miscue was a solo homer by Adam Lind in the third.
The Rays continued to struggle with runners in scoring position, going 0-for-5 to make them 5-for-58 (.086) in their past eight games. Their big guns — Carl Crawford (1-for-4), B.J. Upton (0-for-4, three strikeouts) and Carlos Pena (0-for-3) — weren't clicking, but the bottom of the lineup helped save the day.
In the seventh, Eric Hinske had, arguably, the at-bat of the day, drawing a two-out walk. Hinske worked a 3-and-2 count before checking his swing on ball four.
"Hinske's at-bat was everything," Zobrist said.
That's because on the next pitch, Zobrist smacked a 395-foot homer to rightfield. For Zobrist, filling in for injured shortstop Jason Bartlett, it was his fourth — and biggest — of the season.
"It was a great feeling to just be the guy (Friday)," Zobrist said. "But it's going be someone else (tonight)."
It turned out to be someone else in the next inning.
After a throwing error by Zobrist put a runner on second with nobody out, Howell got two outs before Balfour struck out Alex Rios with the tying run on third.
Balfour tossed a scoreless ninth for his fourth save.
"You didn't want to come in here and (lose). Then you're kind of like, 'Oh, was that all just magic in the first half?' " Howell said. "We knew it wasn't. But it helps to get the first one out of the way. Now the streak's over. All the talk is over, all the negativity. Now we can focus on day to day."
Said Balfour: "Hopefully, we can get it going now … and win seven."
Joe Smith can be reached at j[email protected]