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THIS TIME, LITSCH BREAKS RAYS' BATS

Ex-bat boy picks up the Jays with stellar start.

In the Devil Rays clubhouse, he was known as "Rojo" because he was a bat boy with red hair.

On Tuesday, all grown up, Jesse Litsch came back to town and beat his former employer. Litsch, the 22-year-old Blue Jays rookie pitcher and St. Petersburg native, shut down the same Devil Rays bats he used to take back and forth from the batter's box.

The Dixie Hollins graduate threw 62/3 shutout innings, scattering seven hits and handing the Rays a 2-0 loss at the Trop. It was Tampa Bay's fifth shutout loss this season - their third in their past 13 games -and overshadowed a solid performance by Rays starter Edwin Jackson.

"I'm going to have all of our present bat boys throw a bullpen session tomorrow, just to see what we have going on here," Rays manager Joe Maddon deadpanned. "We can not allow that to happen ever again. ... He didn't miss the strike zone."

As an 8-year-old youth-league player, Litsch was 46-for-46 at the plate. He threw 14 no-hit innings the same year. He had played at Tropicana Field as a member of the Rays RBI (Revitalizing Baseball in the Inner cities) Program, and he spent countless game days working there. But the special occasion of returning to the Trop as a big-leaguer didn't faze Litsch.

"It's all a great feeling," Litsch said. "It's the big leagues. You're here playing big-league baseball. Every day is awesome. ... Pitching at home, it's a great thing."

Litsch stranded seven base-runners. With the bases loaded and one out in the third, Carlos Pena hit a line drive at second baseman Aaron Hill, who dropped the ball but recovered in time for a 4-6-3 inning-ending double play.

"It was cool before the game started, but once the game started it was business time," said Rays leftfielder Carl Crawford, one of the few remaining Rays from when Litsch was a bat boy in 2001 and 2002. "He kept the ball down. He was hitting his spots."

Litsch's performance was not a surprise to Toronto manager John Gibbons, who said he was hounded by fans sitting behind the Jays dugout when he pulled Litsch from the game.

"He rose to the occasion, and that doesn't surprise me," Gibbons said. "You're not going to find many guys that are more confident than he is. He's done a tremendous job. I can't put it any better. He came here to the big leagues ahead of the schedule that we planned on. He's what, 22? He's done a heck of a job."

The Rays (40-66) put a runner on base in six of the last eight innings, stranding runners at third base in the third and ninth innings. They were 0-for-5 with runners in scoring position.

The Jays capitalized on a two-base fielding error by shortstop Ben Zobrist in the second. Centerfielder Vernon Wells hit a line drive that skipped past Zobrist's glove, high into the air and into shallow centerfield. After a wild pitch, Wells scored on Matt Stairs' single to left. Wells added an RBI double in the eighth.

Jackson recovered well, ending the night having allowed just five hits and the unearned run over six innings. He retired the final seven hitters he faced.

Eduardo A. Encina can be reached at eencina@sptimes.com.

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