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Mark Buehrle’s gem, Jose Bautista’s homers lead Blue Jays to victory

ST. PETERSBURG, FLA.—Mark Buehrle didn’t make a very good first impression with the Blue Jays last year. He gave up six runs in his debut — including a pair of fat homers — and posted a 5.51 earned-run average over his first two months in Toronto.

The veteran lefty then spent the rest of the season steadily chipping away at those abysmal marks, and by the end of the year, he was the Jays’ most dependable starter. His second-half ERA was more than a run-and-a-half lower than it was in the first half.

On Wednesday, in his first start of the season, Buehrle picked up where he left off.

Working at his usual quick and efficient pace, the veteran lefty craftily cut through the Tampa Bay Rays’ lineup, throwing 8 2/3 scoreless innings, while racking up 11 strikeouts in one of his best starts as a Jay.

Jose Bautista, meanwhile, hit his first and second home runs of the season — both viciously launched with incredible air time, eventually landing in the left-field seats — as the Jays defeated the Rays 3-0.

Now, since their opening-day debacle, the Jays have now won back-to-back games, in which their starting pitchers have not conceded a run.

Buehrle was near-perfect on Wednesday. Often derided as little more than a middle-of-the-road innings eater — which, over the course of a full season, he usually is — when Buehrle is working like he was on Wednesday, he is as effective as an ace.

Sharp and precise, he seemed to paint the edges of the strike zone with relative ease, freezing Ray after Ray with impeccable command. Eight of his 11 strikeouts were of the looking variety, as Rays batters stood stunned by Buehrle’s soft stuff. One of his curveballs was clocked at 69 mph, while his fastball sat around 82 mph.

Another difference between Buehrle’s horrible start of a year ago and his outing on Wednesday night was who was playing behind him.

A year ago, with Brett Lawrie and Jose Reyes both on the disabled list at various times, the Jays were using a combination of Mark DeRosa, Munenori Kawasaki and Maicer Izturis to play shortstop and third.

On Wednesday, while Reyes was still out, this time he was replaced by the defensively gifted Jonathan Diaz — and later the equally gifted Ryan Goins — while Lawrie was back at his usual spot.

While Buehrle didn’t need much help on Wednesday — earning 11 of his 26 outs on his own — Lawrie and Diaz were there to make the plays when called upon. That wasn’t always the case a year ago.

The Jays exhibited stellar defence all around the infield on Wednesday — another big difference from a year ago — with not only Lawrie and Diaz flashing the leather, but also Edwin Encarnacion on a nifty pick to start a 3-6-3 double-play to erase a leadoff single in the seventh.

Buehrle was also working with a different man behind the plate in catcher Dioner Navarro, who added a pair of singles himself and drove in the Jays’ second run.

Things got interesting once again in the ninth when manager John Gibbons decided to go to his bullpen with the Rays down to their last out, after Buehrle gave up a single to Ben Zobrist. Interim closer Sergio Santos entered the game and walked his only batter, bringing the tying run to the plate. But Gibbons gave Santos the quick hook and called upon lefty Brett Cecil to go up against the same-handed Matt Joyce. Cecil struck him out to preserve the shutout.

“We’ve seen some crazy things happen here. I don’t know what it is, but it’s something,” Gibbons said before the game, referring to his club’s historic struggles at Tropicana Field. “You know it’s tough to win here. It usually takes nine tough innings.”

NOTES: Before Wednesday’s game, GM Alex Anthopoulos said he wasn’t looking externally for a shortstop, saying he doesn’t expect Reyes to be out for very long.

Regarding the fact the club is currently carrying three catchers on its active roster, Anthopoulos was blunt: “We don’t want it to continue,” he said, adding the roster is fluid and could change quickly as needs arise.

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