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Toronto Blue Jays pitcher Carlos Villanueva pitches against the Cleveland Indians during first inning MLB action in Toronto Sunday, July 15, 2012. THE (Aaron Vincent Elkaim/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Toronto Blue Jays pitcher Carlos Villanueva pitches against the Cleveland Indians during first inning MLB action in Toronto Sunday, July 15, 2012. THE (Aaron Vincent Elkaim/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Villanueva has career-high eight strikeouts as Jays shutout Indians Add to ...

A shaky first inning could have been the beginning of the end for Carlos Villanueva.

The Toronto Blue Jays starter was having success with a first-pitch fastball, but quickly found Cleveland batters were laying off his off-speed pitches. Something wasn’t working, and when Villanueva walked off the mound it didn’t take long for him to realize he needed to be more aggressive.

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The change paid off. Villanueva threw a career-high eight strikeouts — including four that ended innings in two-out situations — as the Blue Jays shut out the Indians 3-0 on Sunday.

Villanueva allowed three hits through six innings. On his last batter, he got Cleveland first baseman Casey Kotchman to strike out swinging on his 102nd pitch of the game.

“I was grinding out there. I got the two outs, I just wanted to get the last out,” said Villanueva.

After his first start on 10 days rest through the all-star break, the 29-year-old starter said he had hoped to go seven innings but that his pitch count had reached its limit. If the game seemed like a grind to him — and the five walks didn’t help — the approach still worked against the Indians’ offence.

“They are obviously a good hitting team,” said Villanueva (4-0). “They’re patient. I know they have a lot of walks as a team. ... In the end that’s what really matters. You make pitches when you need to.”

After the game, Blue Jays manager John Farrell said he was happy to see Villanueva end the sixth, especially since he was planning on replacing the right hander after Kotchman’s at-bat. Farrell said he thought Villanueva’s experience in the bullpen gives him an edge in two-out scenarios.

“(Villanueva’s) got the ability to dig down a little bit deeper and make a pitch even when he’s at his limit at in terms of overall stamina and durability in a given game,” said Farrell.

He was replaced on the mound by reliever Jason Frasor, who pitched a scoreless seventh. Darren Oliver needed just six pitches to get through the eighth inning, giving him the opportunity to finish off the ninth and earn his first save of the season.

Farrell said he had Francisco Cordero ready in the bullpen if Oliver faltered. But Frasor and Oliver allowed only two hits between them, giving the team a boost of confidence one day after the bullpen nearly blew an eight-run lead in an 11-9 win.

Blue Jays bats put on a clinic with 13 hits Saturday, but in the finale of the three-game series RBI singles by J.P. Arencibia and Colby Rasmus as well as a walked-in run were all the offence Toronto (45-44) needed.

Kelly Johnson walked to first, then stole second and third after Cleveland catcher Carlos Santana’s relay throw missed the mark. That paid off for the Jays when Arencibia singled to drive in Johnson, and Rasmus made it 2-0 with a hard single to centre that scored Arencibia.

After Jose Bautista singled, Indians starter Derek Lowe walked Edwin Encarnacion to load the bases then walked Adam Lind on a 3-0 count to let Rasmus score a third run on a stroll to home plate. Lowe ended the inning without further damage when he struck out Yunel Escobar swinging.

“It could have been worse. I ain’t kidding. I left the bases loaded,” said Lowe (8-7), who also went six innings for Cleveland (45-43) but had just five strikeouts to match his four walks.

Villanueva meanwhile settled down after his early struggles. His day was highlighted in the third inning by cooly snagging a hard comebacker from Jason Kipnis for the third out. Kipnis said his team couldn’t get a good read on Villanueva.

“He’s a big off-speed guy and I thought he had a good change-up going today,” said Kipnis. “He kept us off balance in hitter’s counts, he didn’t give us pitches we could jump on in 2-0, 3-1 counts when we got ahead of him.”

Cleveland manager Manny Acta put it more succinctly: “We just couldn’t do anything against Villanueva. He pitched well.”

Notes: Attendance at Rogers Centre was 26,407. ... Left-fielder Ben Francisco replaced Rajai Davis in the starting lineup. Davis is 0-for-21 at the plate since July 5 against Kansas City. ... Henderson Alvarez (5-7, 4.36 earned-run average) gets the start Monday for the Blue Jays as they open a three-game series on the road against the New York Yankees, who counter with Phil Hughes (9-7, 4.33 ERA). ... Injured RHP Sergio Santos needs shoulder surgery that will shut him down for the season. The Blue Jays hope to have him back for spring training.

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