ST. PETERSBURG — The way Scott Kazmir started, the Rays didn't really know what to think. On the bench, in the bullpen, around the field, even on the mound, where Kazmir acknowledged "it might get out of hand early."
He allowed the first three White Sox to reach, didn't get his first out until his 20th pitch, threw 37 to eight batters.
Jogging off after the first finally ended, leftfielder Carl Crawford looked up at the Trop video board. "It seemed worse than it was," he said. "I wasn't looking at the score because I was looking at the runners. I looked up and I was like, 'Oh, it was only two runs.' "
Kazmir labored again in the second, enough so that relievers Chad Bradford and David Price were warming up, but he stranded the two he let on.
Then everything changed.
Kazmir found his groove and showed his guts by working into the sixth. His teammates did the amazing things they do. And the Rays were left with something no one would have thought: a 6-2 win Friday that gave them a 2-0 lead in the best-of-five division series and three chances, starting Sunday in Chicago, for the one win needed to advance to the AL Championship Series.
"He set the tone the way he bounced back," Crawford said, "and we followed him."
Akinori Iwamura, one of the littlest Rays, hit a big two-run homer. Shortstop Jason Bartlett and last-second rightfield starter Fernando Perez made huge plays. The blistering bullpen got the last 11 outs, Grant Balfour followed by J.P. Howell followed by Chad Bradford.
"They weren't the best in the American League (East) for no reason," Sox starter Mark Buehrle said. "This team kind of reminds me of like an '05 (championship season) with us. They do so much stuff to win games."
The Rays are in the postseason for the first time, but history is certainly on their side. Of the 32 teams that have taken 2-0 leads in division series play, 27 have won, 21 by sweeps.
"We're going to try to wrap this thing up in Chicago," catcher Dioner Navarro said.
At the least, the Rays ensured they'll play again at roaring Tropicana Field, either in Game 5 against the White Sox or in the ALCS against the Angels or Red Sox.
Kazmir was sharp in the bullpen and insisted he was calm on the mound, but he quickly took some of the charge out of the sellout Trop crowd of 35,257.
The problem was part mechanical, in that he was going side to side in his delivery instead of straight to the plate, and part mental as he was "not really trusting my stuff."
But Navarro insisted "it wasn't as bad as it looked" and manager Joe Maddon and pitching coach Jim Hickey wanted to stay patient and allow him a chance to work though it.
"I would say it was an extremely gutsy performance," Hickey said. "Gigantic. The easiest thing in the world would have been to fold the tent in the first inning and just say, 'Screw it.' But he battled through it and he battled through the second, and he gave us a chance to win the ballgame."
Maddon said Kazmir deserves more credit for his inner resolve, and he showed it. "I can't say enough about how much he came back," reliever Dan Wheeler said. "That's really the most important thing. … That was amazing."
As bad as Kazmir felt about the start, he couldn't have been happier about the result.
"It felt so good after the first inning and how that ended up happening and whatnot," he said. "It just felt like it was going to be a long day until I finally found my groove."
The Rays got a run in the second on a single by Navarro. And they got the lead in the fifth when Bartlett singled and Iwamura, who had homered once since June, drove a Buehrle pitch over the left-centerfield fence.
They made it last by adding on, getting three in the eighth, with two old favorites, Crawford and Rocco Baldelli, playing key roles.
Winning this way, it seems, is even better. "It just gives us a lot of confidence," Kazmir said. "It really does."
Marc Topkin can be reached at [email protected].com.