Kazmir seals his new deal with victory
Lefty tosses six scoreless frames; Rays' confidence builds
ST. PETERSBURG -- When speaking the other day about the biggest indicator that the Rays are, indeed, for real, manager Joe Maddon cited the club's series vs. the Boston Red Sox.
But it wasn't the April 25-27 home series in which the Rays swept the Sox; instead the skipper was referring to the three-game mashing at Fenway Park where the Rays fell by a combined score of 26-10.
Smiling, Maddon explained that he had seen the club get swept, get back up, and most importantly bounce back with a sense of professionalism that sparked the Rays' 7-1 record in the ensuing eight games.
Maddon had the same grin on his face Thursday afternoon, as the Rays, buoyed by the recent-signing of ace Scott Kazmir, brushed off Wednesday night's loss and continued to validate their spot atop the American League East.
The Rays handed the Yankees a 5-2 loss, taking three of the series' four games from a struggling New York squad, which left Tropicana Field in last place and with frequent boos from the crowd of 19,976. With the win, the Rays are now in sole possession of first place and a game up on -- you guessed it -- the Red Sox.
"It's the confidence that's been gained," Maddon said. "It's the momentum that you create and, it's the feeling that now exists that did not exist before ... once you got it, you have to do everything you possibly can to make sure it doesn't go away."
The Rays showed that confidence early, as Akinori Iwamura notched his third homer of the year, off the fourth pitch of the night from Yankees starter Ian Kennedy.
"It feels like every game we go out there, we feel that we can win," Kazmir said. The ace, who made it no secret that he was unhappy with previous losing seasons at Tampa Bay, says the defense alone has been a comfort for him on the mound.
"When you get behind a hitter, you don't feel like you have to make a perfect pitch," he said. "You just trust yourself and trust your defense."
That defense made several spectacular plays again on Thursday afternoon, including a gem by third baseman Evan Longoria to retire the game's opening batter, Johnny Damon.
"Defense and pitching," Maddon said, when asked the keys to the Rays' historic 24-17 start. "In spite of the fact that we are not hitting, I don't want our players to be concerned about that. I'd much prefer that we go about it this way, knowing that we are going to hit eventually. Believe me, the work every day offensively is there, we've been working our butts off to swing the bats better."
One of the players who has been quietly laboring has been backup catcher Shawn Riggans. Given Dioner Navarro's hot streak, Riggans has been a bench player since May 4 at Boston. Thursday afternoon, the young backstop made the most of his first start in 11 days, going 2-for-3, including a two-run homer in the fourth inning, to cushion the Rays lead. The club tacked on another run in the fifth inning when Iwamura doubled and crossed the plate after back-to-back flies.
"We're getting the job done, getting those insurance runs," reliever Dan Wheeler said. "I think that's something we all need to focus on as a whole, doing the little things right, and not getting ahead of ourselves."
Kazmir sung a similar tune after Thursday's series win.
"That's the funny part, we are still scratching the surface," he said. "There are a lot of things we can still get better at."
One area of improvement will be Kazmir himself, who admitted he was still "fighting" on the mound in his third start after opening the season on the disabled list. Clearly, no one told the slumping Yankees, who were held to three hits over the six scoreless innings tossed by Kazmir.
"He hasn't hit his rhythm yet and that's the exciting part," Maddon said, of the reigning American League strikeout champ.
"As a pitcher, as a position player, you can get things done by force of will sometimes too, and I like that. I think right now he knows he can compete, he knows as he is running himself back into form he can still win and I think that's what he's shown. There is a lot left in the tank that you are going to see in the near future."
The same can be said for the Rays, who were 18-23 after 41 games last season, and have wielded an AL-best 24-17 record going into Friday's three-game Interleague set vs. St. Louis.
"Team's going in the right direction," Riggans said. "It's just a pleasure to be here. Everything's going in the good direction -- going good right now."
Amazingly enough, the club has achieved a record-setting season despite hitting just .257, and has still been unable to win over many national outlets who view the team's early success as a farce.
"It's going to be fun, the next couple of weeks, the next couple of months, how we're going to get better," Kazmir said. "That motivates us. Keep doubting us, because we know what we can do here."
And if the season's first seven weeks are any indication, the sky's the limit for the Rays.
Brittany Ghiroli is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.