BOSTON — Two games, even against the Red Sox, are too few to make any judgments about the Rays. But if there actually were any causes for concern after Tuesday's opening day loss, there certainly were some signs of encouragement after Wednesday's 7-2 win on a cold night at Fenway Park.
Scott Kazmir had a strong start, allowing only one run over six solid innings (though throwing 111 pitches) and mixing in the nasty slider he rediscovered this spring with an effective changeup and well-placed fastball.
The hitters did the kind of little things they need to in the pitching-rich division, scoring runs on a throwing error, a safety squeeze, an infield single (and a double-play grounder).
They flexed a little muscle as well, as Carlos Peña — who made it five straight strikeouts to open the season in his first at-bat Wednesday, then a groundout — made pretty solid contact in crushing a massive homer to center. Evan Longoria added a Green Monster shot.
And, after J.P. Howell pitched his way into trouble by loading the bases in the eighth, Grant Balfour, who had a rough spring, came on and got the kind of huge outs he did so often last season, striking out Mike Lowell.
"We're getting into ourselves," Kazmir said. "It just feels like we're finally — I wouldn't say finally, it's the second game of the year — we're right where we need to be, I think. This is a big win for us, so we can have a chance to go out there (today) and take the series."
The pitching is so important to the Rays' success, and they got it at both ends of the game.
Kazmir came off a good spring but admitted the confidence boost of winning his first real start was important. He struggled a bit in a 25-pitch first inning, walking the second and third hitters, but he got out of trouble and got in a groove as the game went on.
Manager Joe Maddon liked the little things — the balance in his delivery, the command and late life of the fastball, the break on the slider. "Kaz was really good today," he said.
And Balfour, who allowed 19 baserunners in eight spring innings, came through when it mattered most, getting Lowell, then three more outs in the ninth for the save.
"Here's a guy that has had not a ton of major-league success in the past and he goes through a difficult spring training and I'm concerned about his confidence more than anything," Maddon said. "It was a typical moment for him to pitch in, and for him to do what he did I know definitely bolstered his confidence."
The batters also have to be productive, and resourceful, as Maddon stresses the importance of situational hitting. They did it with key hits (three from Jason Bartlett, Carl Crawford and Akinori Iwamura), and productive outs, with good execution (Bartlett's safety squeeze bunt was textbook), with patience at the plate and aggressiveness on the bases. And they did so against a left-handed starter, so often a problem last season. And there was one mighty swing by Peña, with the ball going over the 17-foot-high centerfield wall.
"We did a better job, and we have to," Maddon said. "When you face good pitching, you have to get runs with outs. You just have to be able to do that. You just can't go up there consistently trying to hit the ball over the wall. You have to work a better at-bat. You have to grind them out. And we've got that in our game — it's there."