ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- Mark Buehrle has been a notoriously slow starter throughout his career, but maybe, just maybe, after 14 years in the Major Leagues that's about to change.
Toronto's veteran left-hander typically struggles in April, but in his first start of the season he appeared in midseason form by mixing speeds and commanding the ball to both sides of the plate with relative ease.
Buehrle often left the Rays hitters looking dazed by striking out 11 to come within one out of his 10th career shutout, while Jose Bautista hit a pair of solo home runs en route to a 3-0 win over Tampa Bay on Wednesday night at Tropicana Field.
"He was really good, he might have found the fountain of youth," Blue Jays manager John Gibbons said in a half-joking manner. "He said all Spring Training long that he's felt the best he has felt in a long, long time. Who knows what that means, but it was a tremendous game for him tonight."
Buehrle entered the game with a career ERA of 4.32 in March/April, his highest mark for any month. Those early-season struggles became a major talking point last season as Buehrle allowed at least five runs in five of his first seven starts. By May 6, Buehrle had an ERA of 7.02, and while he would eventually settle down and have another strong year, in a lot of ways, the damage had already been done.
The season debut this time around couldn't have been any different. Buehrle had an almost effortless outing as he worked at his typically fast pace and breezed through Tampa Bay's lineup. The native of St. Louis allowed just four hits and one walk while throwing 67 of his 108 pitches for strikes.
Buehrle appeared headed for his 30th complete game until a Ben Zobrist line drive bounced off the glove of third baseman Brett Lawrie with two outs in the ninth. Gibbons then went to his bullpen, and after a walk by Sergio Santos, it was left-hander Brett Cecil who came in for the second save of his career.
"He's been around for such a long time and obviously as you get older you don't get stronger and faster, but he's got a great understanding of pitching and that's what he did," catcher Dioner Navarro said of Buehrle.
"He hit spots and he drives hitters crazy. He's one of those guys that when you're 0-for-2 and you look at the scoreboard, you'll be like, 'How the heck did this guy just get me out?' He attacks the strike zone, he works ahead a lot of the time and that's really the key."
Perhaps the most surprising aspect of Buehrle's start were the 11 strikeouts. It marked just the second time in his career that Buehrle reached double-digits and was one away from the high he set on April 16, 2005, against the Mariners.
The interesting tidbits don't stop there. Buehrle became just the fourth Blue Jays pitcher in club history to record 10-plus strikeouts in his first appearance of the season, joining Brandon Morrow (2011), Chris Carpenter (2001) and Juan Guzman (1992). Buehrle's also the first Toronto pitcher to strike out at least 10 and allow zero earned runs on the road since A.J. Burnett on Sept. 13, 2006.
"I usually get a few strikeouts in the first couple of innings and that's it," said Buehrle, who posted a 2.93 ERA this spring. "I think it just shows my ball was moving, I had some good movement on it and I hit my spots. Navarro set up away, I hit the glove away, we went in, hit the glove in with good movement, so just keeping them off balance. Getting ahead in the strike zone. The defense was amazing ... It was a perfect storm, everything worked out."
Bautista just missed a pair of home runs in the first two games, but he made up for that Wednesday night. He gave Toronto a 1-0 lead in the fourth with a home run to left field off Rays left-hander Matt Moore. Bautista went to work again in the seventh, this time with a deep homer to left off reliever Josh Lueke.
It marked the 22nd multi-homer game of Bautista's career and his first since June 29, 2013, at Boston. Bautista has three hits, three runs scored and two RBIs in nine at-bats this season. Melky Cabrera, Maicer Izturis and Navarro also had a pair of hits in the win.
Despite losing their first game of the season, the Blue Jays have an opportunity to win the four-game series in Tampa Bay. Toronto hasn't won a road series from the Rays since April 6-8, 2007, which is the longest streak in baseball since Tampa Bay went winless in 25 series against Boston from 2000-08.
"I think it's too early, the sample size is too small so far," Bautista said when asked if there was a different tone being set this season. "But I'll tell you what, I could really get used to the chemistry that I see between our catcher and our pitchers. If they managed to keep that going for an extended period of time, we're going to have a lot of fun playing this year."