ST. PETERSBURG — Scott Kazmir keeps insisting he can pitch better.
But what he did his first month after coming off the disabled list was pretty good, going 5-1 with a 1.22 ERA, and Monday he was honored as the American League's best of May, winning the Rays first pitcher (or player) of the month award in the Rays' 11 seasons.
"It's a nice honor," Kazmir said. "Everything is coming along well, and my arm strength is getting better. I've got great defense behind me. I hope to continue to progress as the season goes on."
After a rocky season debut at Fenway Park on May 4 following his recovery from a spring elbow strain, Kazmir won five straight and didn't allow more than one run or four hits in any of the games.
Kazmir won the award, plus the trophy and Sharp LCD TV that goes with it, over Toronto's Roy Halladay (4-1, 2.52) and Jesse Litsch (4-0, 2.08), Chicago's Bobby Jenks (eight saves, 0,.84) and Boston's Daisuke Matsuzaka (4-0, 2.54).
CF B.J. Upton didn't fare as well in the AL player of the month voting, which is done by league media, finishing as a runnerup to former Rays prospect Josh Hamilton who, now with Texas, won his second straight award.
ON THE OTHER HAND: The Rays aren't doing very well in the early returns of voting for the July 15 All-Star Game.
LF Carl Crawford is their top vote-getter but ranks 12th among AL outfielders with 247,997, and Upton is 15th with 193,585. Boston's Manny Ramirez leads with 811,612.
The only other Ray among the released leaders is 1B Carlos Pena, who is fourth with 199,568. Leader Kevin Youkilis of Boston has 622,869.
CLOSE CALLS: Among the reasons for the Rays' success — in their past 23 games decided by two or one run, they are 20-3.
NO SHUFFLE: The Rays could have used Monday's off-day to shuffle their rotation and have Kazmir pitch on regular rest in the last game in Boston, where he is 4-4 with a 3.02 ERA.
But manager Joe Maddon preferred to keep things as they were, with Matt Garza starting tonight, Edwin Jackson on Wednesday and James Shields on Thursday.
"We really didn't want to do that right now," he said. "He's coming back, he's doing nice work, I didn't think it was necessary."
C-PAIN: Maddon sounds like he plans to be patient with Pena, whose continued struggles raise the question of dropping him from the cleanup spot. Pena is 2-for-23 over his past six games with 13 strikeouts, and overall hitting .221 with 71 Ks, second most in the majors behind Philadelphia's Ryan Howard (78).
ALUMNI ASSOCIATION: Count Red Sox SS Julio Lugo as the latest ex-Ray happy to see his old team doing better.
"I'm not surprised with their success because they have pitching now," he told the Boston Globe. "I'm really happy for them. I still have friends over there, so I'm glad that after all the years of struggling they're doing good. … They're a tough team to play."
HISTORICAL TRIBUTE: As part of an MLB celebration of the Negro Leagues, each team will draft a living former player before Thursday's amateur draft. The Rays selection will be Walter Lee Gibbons, who pitched for the Philadelphia Stars, New York Black Yankees and Indianapolis Clowns.
MISCELLANY: LHP David Price had another impressive outing for Class A Vero Beach on Monday, allowing three hits and striking out six in seven shutout innings, making it 18 scoreless over three starts. … The Rays are the ninth team in modern history (since 1900) to be 13 or more games over .500 in a season after having the worst record in the majors the previous season. … The Rays have the fewest errors, 23, in the majors and share the best fielding percentage, .989, with the Angels and Padres.