ST. PETERSBURG — With the way the Rays have pitched and played defense lately, offense has become a perk.
Ace Scott Kazmir came through in his second start since coming off the disabled list, pitching six scoreless innings Saturday to extend the starters' streak to 23, as the Rays beat the Angels 2-0 for the second straight night.
The crowd of 25,512 showed its appreciation, making for what Carlos Pena called an "electrifying" atmosphere, with primarily blue-clad fans on their feet as Dan Wheeler pulled off another Houdini-like hold in the eighth and Troy Percival closed out his former team in the ninth. That tied a franchise record of 22 straight scoreless innings and set one of 31 at home.
"It's unbelievable how they've pitched," Pena said. "It's almost like they don't even need us. They don't need us to hit."
The second-place Rays (20-16), off to the best start in club history, did, however, need the help of their sparkling defense.
In Wheeler's jam in the eighth, Angels shortstop Erick Aybar surprised the Rays by not bunting with runners on first and second and nobody out. Pena stunned them back by making a diving stab on Aybar's sharp grounder, robbing him of extra bases.
"Carlos saved the game, there's no question," Wheeler said. "The game turns right there. Play of the game."
Shortstop Jason Bartlett made the game's second-best defensive play, racing up the middle to start a 6-4-3 double play, with Akinori Iwamura's quick throw getting speedy Torii Hunter.
That stopped a potential jam for Kazmir (1-1), who was far sharper than in his first start, setting up hitters and baffling them with his breaking balls. The left-hander struck out five in the first three, freezing Angels slugger Vladimir Guerrero with two outs and a runner on third in the third.
"Everything felt a little better," Kazmir said. "I had to kind of stay within myself."
Angels lefty Joe Saunders (6-1), who went in undefeated in seven starts, walked four in the first three frames, but all Tampa Bay could muster was an RBI groundout by Evan Longoria in the first and a Pena sacrifice fly in the eighth. But it was more than enough for the Rays' hot hurlers.
Kazmir said the staff has simply followed its plan since spring training to "feed off each other." Edwin Jackson's eight scoreless innings sparked James Shields' shutout Friday, and so on.
The fans have apparently fed off it, too. Some players said Saturday was one of the best non-opening day atmospheres they've seen; as opposed to near sellouts where Red Sox and Yankees fans have taken over the building, Wheeler noticed a shift against one of the AL's best teams. "We were talking about it in the dugout; a lot of fans are cheering just for us," he said. "It's a nice feeling."
"We're on the verge right now of truly turning this into 'The Pit,' " manager Joe Maddon said. "That's exactly what we've been talking about since we came on board. This place can really be a homecourt advantage for us. That is the 10th man."
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Dropping goose eggs
The Rays have not allowed a run in 22 innings, tying a franchise record set in 2002:
Thursday: Rays 8, Jays 3 (13)
Dan Wheeler (1 inning)
J.P. Howell (3)
Friday: Rays 2, Angels 0
James Shields (9)
Saturday: Rays 2, Angels 0
Scott Kazmir (6)
Trever Miller (1)
Troy Percival (1)
May 19: Rays 4, Orioles 0
Travis Harper (5)
Steve Kent (4)
May 20: Rays 1, Mariners 0
Joe Kennedy (9)
May 21: Rays 3, Mariners 2
Ryan Rupe (4)