ST. PETERSBURG — Matt Garza had pitched well in the three starts since his no-hitter. Seven innings against the Yankees, allowing four runs. A complete-game eight without allowing an earned run in Toronto. A duel into the sixth last time out with Detroit's Justin Verlander.
But the Rays didn't win any of those games, which meant they weren't good enough.
Tuesday, Garza took care of that with a dominant performance, leading the Rays to a 10-1 victory over the AL West-leading Rangers and picking up his career-high 12th win.
He threw seven shutout innings, struck out a season-high 10, allowed only five hits (and one runner past second).
And he made it sound so simple.
"I'm finding what works and sticking with it; that's just staying aggressive with my fastball and keeping guys on their toes," he said. "That's where I think my success will lie."
With their fourth straight win, the Rays (73-46) remained tied for first atop the AL East with the Yankees, who beat Detroit, and 5½ games ahead of the third-place Red Sox with 43 games to play.
Garza got plenty of help as the Rays rapped a season-high-tying 15 hits, seven for extra bases, including Carl Crawford's 100th career triple (and his 99th home run) and more signs of warming by B.J. Upton (two doubles) and Evan Longoria (single, double, triple). The Rays scored three in the first, two in the fourth and broke it open with five more in the seventh in handing the Rangers their worst of their 51 losses.
There also was the usual good defense, highlighted this night by Crawford running down Vlad Guerrero's liner on the centerfield side of left-center.
Manager Joe Maddon could tell early that Garza was on, and not just because he struck out the side in the first and five of the first eight overall.
"He looked really good," Maddon said. "His mound demeanor was good, his composure was good, he was pounding the strike zone with his fastball, which I always believe is good."
Because Garza was throwing his fastball well and keeping it down, his slider became more effective, as strikeout victims Bengie Molina, Josh Hamilton and David Murphy can attest.
Garza, 26, admits it's an ongoing process as he tries to convince himself to stick with what works best overall. He was 11-9 with a 3.70 ERA in 2008 after being acquired from Minnesota, then dropped off to 8-12, 3.95 last season, though he probably deserved better given a lack of run support.
Now he's 12-7, 3.74 with eight or nine starts left, trying to maintain what he's doing now (no earned runs in four of his past seven starts) to put a strong finish on a season that started well, then inexplicably went bad for a couple months.
"I've had to just find myself," Garza said. "I've been searching for myself the last three years. I thought I found it in '08 and had it in the beginning of '09, then lost it a little bit. Maybe it was fatigue, maybe a lack of preparation from the (foot) surgery. This year I came in in great shape and felt great and started off hot, then kind of lost who I was, along with my breaking balls, those two months. Now it's getting back to who I am."
With four of his remaining starts likely against the Yankees and Red Sox, he'll have the chance to show it.
Marc Topkin can be reached at [email protected]