ST. PETERSBURG — Consider this the latest sign of progress in the Rays' remarkable run:
They stood alone with the best record in the majors after Monday's 7-3 win over the Rangers, having won 14 of their past 18, and they were talking just as much about what they can do better than what they did.
Scott Kazmir was dazzling through seven innings and struck out 10 but was displeased about not being able to elevate his fastball at times.
The slowly warming bats produced a Tropicana Field season-high 16 hits, but manager Joe Maddon was concerned about the 15 runners left on base.
And despite a 31-20 record, and the historical novelty that goes with it of being the first team in modern history (since 1900) to have the best record in the majors through Memorial Day after having the worst record the year before, they say they can play even better overall.
"That's what's crazy," Kazmir said. "You can ask anyone; we haven't really hit on all cylinders. … We're definitely happy with what we're doing right now, but there's a lot of things we can improve on."
On a night when the return of resurrected prospect Josh Hamilton (who was 0-for-4 after getting a warm ovation) stirred memories of the failures of the old Rays, Monday's standings showed just how far in the past that is, and how much their goals have changed.
"We know a lot of people think we're going to probably fade at the end or something,'' Carl Crawford said. "We just want to try to show people that it's no fluke, because the guys we have taking the mound every night are guys that can get it done every night, and the same thing for the position players. We just want to try to keep it going."
Monday was another example of everyone doing their part — well, except the community, as there was a crowd of only 12,174, fifth smallest at the Trop this season and smallest by far in the majors Monday.
Kazmir, with his fastball command fully back and his slider better than it has been, was dominant from the start, striking out the first four and seven of the first nine. The Rangers didn't put a ball in play until his 27th pitch and didn't get a hit until Michael Young singled in the fourth.
"It was a lot of fun,'' Carlos Pena said. "We were sitting there like we were fans watching him on the mound. We didn't really have to do too much.''
Since his rocky May 4 debut, Kazmir is 4-0 with an 0.69 ERA and has allowed a .148 average. "He'd shut anybody down the way he pitched tonight," Texas manager Ron Washington said.
Eric Hinske had the biggest hit, a three-run homer in the fifth that extended the lead to 5-0. Pena continued his warming trend (8 for his past 11) with three more hits, including a double that stuck in the B-ring catwalk, and so did Dioner Navarro, raising his average to .369.
And there was the usual dose of dazzling defense, with Evan Longoria laying out to smother another smash, Navarro throwing out another runner and Crawford running down another flyout to save extra bases and squelch a rally.
"He outran that baseball,'' Maddon said. "That was the big play of the night.''
These days, a lot of players are coming up big.
Marc Topkin can be reached at [email protected]