ST. PETERSBURG — Rays ace Scott Kazmir said that, after his last start — oh, eight days earlier — he couldn't wait to get back on the mound.
The All-Star lefty said, even after going 1-4 in a seven-start stretch, he felt like he was "on the verge" of putting it all together.
After Monday's spectacular performance in the Rays' 4-0 win over the A's, Kazmir was quick to point out, "It feels like I'm there."
Kazmir came through with his best — and longest — outing in more than a month, throwing seven scoreless innings and giving up just two hits in dazzling a crowd of 12,428.
"He's usually pretty electric out there," rookie Evan Longoria said.
Thanks to Kazmir, the Rays posted a club-record ninth shutout this season. Having won three of four since the All-Star break, Tampa Bay (58-40) remained 11/2 games ahead of the Red Sox in the American League East. Boston beat Seattle 4-0.
"It feels great; it's long past due," Kazmir said. "I feel like I can build off this for upcoming starts."
Kazmir (8-5), the reigning AL strikeout king, fanned nine for the fourth time this season. He had every pitch working for him, with his slider and curveball command helping keep the A's off balance. What manager Joe Maddon noticed was how efficient Kazmir was, allowing him to go deeper into the game.
The Rays made sure to give him some run support. Nearly the entire team showed up for optional early batting practice, and it appeared to pay off. Although they left 13 runners on, they found ways to manufacture runs, with B.J. Upton (two) and Jonny Gomes (one) stealing a base to set up two-out hits by Akinori Iwamura and Longoria.
Longoria continued his hot streak, with a solo shot in the fifth for his third homer in as many days and 19 overall, topping major-league rookies. He also had an RBI single in the third to put the Rays up 1-0.
"There are times where you get that feeling where you're just locked in, and you've got to try to ride that feeling as long as you can," Longoria said.
The Rays loaded up with right-handers against lefty Dana Eveland (7-7), and both Gomes (single) and Willy Aybar (solo homer) came through. "That," Maddon said of Aybar's 384-foot blast, "was tonked pretty good."
The support was more than enough for Kazmir, who got stronger as the game went on. He was hitting 93 mph in the seventh inning, while freezing hitters like Bobby Crosby with his curve.
"The main thing for me was being able to locate the fastball to the outside corner on righties," Kazmir said. "That kind of opened up everything — my slider, my fastball in. I was able to jam people a little bit. I felt like after I was consistent with that, I was able to open up the zone a little more."
Kazmir, who missed the first part of the season while on the disabled list, admitted it was frustrating to have to tinker with his pitches midseason. Although he is starting to feel everything come together, he wasn't ready to say he has returned to his form from late last year.
"No, not yet," Kazmir said, smiling. "Give me one or two more under my belt before we start thinking about that."
Joe Smith can be reached at email@example.com.