ST. PETERSBURG — Though the season has yet to flip its calendar to September, Scott Kazmir labeled this weekend's three-game set with the Rangers a "huge series."
The Rays are chasing them and the Red Sox in the wild-card race, and this provides a rare chance to make up ground in a head-to-head matchup.
Friday, Kazmir set the tone in a 5-3 win in front of 20,639 at Tropicana Field as the Rays moved within three games of wild-card leader Boston.
In one of his best outings of the season, Kazmir gave up three runs over 71/3 innings for his fourth win in his past five starts. When he was pulled in the eighth, he tipped his cap to the crowd, which gave him a standing ovation. Manager Joe Maddon said it was "as good as he has been all year."
And with Kazmir appearing to hit his stride — quality starts in five of his past seven outings after going his previous eight without one — the Rays are excited about what it could mean in their playoff push.
"If he can keep that going, there's no telling what can happen," B.J. Upton said. "That's what he's been in the past, and I think he's starting to get back to it."
The Rays' performance was in stark contrast to the last time the teams met. Over the July 4th weekend in Arlington, the Rangers swept a three-game series, outscoring Tampa Bay 20-7.
This time the Rangers made defensive miscues, with two throwing errors playing a big role in the Rays' first two runs. The Rays (66-55) increased their lead in the fifth when Ben Zobrist and Carlos Peña combined to hit the team's fifth set of back-to-back homers this season.
That was more than enough for Kazmir (8-7), who is 5-1 with a 2.27 ERA in nine starts against Texas. He wasn't overpowering but was efficient with his pitch count through seven innings (85, the lowest after seven for his career).
Kazmir, the American League strikeout champion in 2007, focused on pitching to contact, getting ahead of hitters and getting quick outs. Maddon said a big key has been Kazmir's ability to locate his fastball. "I feel comfortable out there on where I want to throw it, for the most part," Kazmir said. "I'm throwing in and out, mixing it up."
Kazmir was relieved by Grant Balfour in the eighth after giving up a solo homer to Taylor Teagarden, which hit the D-ring catwalk to make the score 5-1, a single and a walk. The Rangers completed a double steal. ("We fell asleep, and they took advantage. We can't do that," Maddon said). Balfour allowed both runners to score, on a single and a fielder's choice.
That brought up ex-Ray Josh Hamilton as the tying run with two outs and rookie Julio Borbon pinch-running at first.
That's when Gregg Zaun made arguably the defensive play of the day, throwing out Borbon trying to steal second. (Borbon was 8-for-8 going in.) Borbon said he missed a sign; manager Ron Washington said, "He won't do it again."
"That was a big play," Maddon said. "(Zaun's throw) was right on the money."