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08/24/09 11:55 PM ET

Rays beat up on Jays, Halladay

Niemann shows poise, hangs in after rough inning

TORONTO -- American League teams know they are lucky to get one shot at Blue Jays ace Roy Halladay, who many consider the best pitcher in baseball.

The Rays got their chance in the first inning Monday night and took advantage of that opportunity by scoring three runs. Tampa Bay lost the lead, but it never quit -- thanks in large part to starter Jeff Niemann's work -- and came away with a 12-7 win over the Blue Jays at Rogers Centre with 17,184 watching.

"I feel great about the win," Niemann said, "because we were definitely in a hole and we fought back. I just tried to do my best to keep us in the game and keep the damage to a minimum; everything kind of fell into place later on."

Halladay is now 1-3 against Tampa Bay this season and the Rays have won four times in the five starts he has made against them. Still, they understand that such success is an oddity.

Halladay "is arguably the toughest pitcher in the game," said Carlos Pena, who hit his AL-leading 35th home run of the season against Halladay in the fifth inning. "His stuff is nasty. I mean, it's very hard to just make contact. So it does feel good to come out on top, because we know we're going up against the best."

By winning, the Rays began their seven-game road trip on a high note while maintaining their position in the AL Wild Card race three games behind the Red Sox.

Ben Zobrist, Pena and Pat Burrell all had RBIs for the Rays in the first inning to stake Niemann to a 3-0 lead. But the Blue Jays fired back with five in the second -- fueled largely by Rod Barajas' grand slam -- and another run in the third to push the lead to 6-3.

Despite taking some major damage, Niemann never gave in and the Rays hitters roared back against Halladay with three in the fourth and two in the fifth to take an 8-6 lead.

"That was huge for us," Pena said. "I was very impressed with Niemann to be able to maintain his composure -- you know, after the grand slam -- to keep on pitching. He kept the damage under control and kept us in the game. And after the game, I went up to him and told him, 'We won this game because of you. You kept it together.' And that's extremely impressive coming from a young pitcher like that. He showed a lot of poise."

The Rays enjoyed a few bloop hits against Halladay, and the Blue Jays threw the ball around a little bit, but Toronto's ace didn't make any excuses.

"It seems like it's that way when you're scuffling a little bit, those things always end up costing you," Halladay said. "It just gets back to making pitches. It really does. It's that simple. When you don't, they cost you. That's really all I can say. You go back and work and figure out ways to always improve and make it better, but it was a lot of my mistakes that cost me."

Rays manager Joe Maddon said his team had a good look throughout the game, even after losing the lead. And he couldn't say enough nice things about the 26-year-old Niemann, who moved to 12-5 on the season in his rookie campaign.

"We got three points in the beginning, and you feel pretty good about that," Maddon said. "Then you give up a five-spot and, obviously, you feel like the tide shifts back in their favor. And it did for a moment. But our guys kept battling. But we were only able to do that because Jeff did not cave in.

"Furthermore, he saved the bullpen. I mean, the bullpen could have been utilized from the second inning on. That did not happen. That speaks well for the rest of the week. Really, I can't say enough good things about what he did tonight, because for a young pitcher to hang tight like that in these circumstances speaks a lot about him and even his candidacy for Rookie of the Year based on that game tonight."

Zobrist led the Rays' late-inning hit parade with his 23rd home run of the season, a solo shot in the seventh off Brandon League that pushed the lead to 9-6. Tampa Bay's cleanup hitter added a double in the three-run ninth to leave himself a triple from hitting for the cycle.

"That first inning kind of set the stage for kind of a whacky game," Niemann said. "It's not really a situation you want to be in, but the offense did great fighting back."

Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.