ST. PETERSBURG -- Scott Kazmir is back to form and the Rays are hitting -- scary stuff for the rest of the American League.
On Monday night, the reigning American League strikeout king looked dominant in his fifth start of the season while Rays hitters pounded Rangers pitching for 16 hits en route to a 7-3 win in front of a crowd of 12,174 at Tropicana Field.
The win preserved the Rays' position atop the AL East while giving the team its 16th win in the last 17 home games. They have now won four in a row and are 14-4 in their last 18 games to give them the best record in baseball at 31-20. Thus, the Rays became the first team in modern Major League history (since 1900) to hold the best record in the Majors through Memorial Day after having the worst record in the Majors the year before.
Having the best record in baseball is "something I've always dreamed about," said Rays left fielder Carl Crawford, who is the longest-tenured member of the team. "I don't even know what to say about that.
"We've been playing good enough so far, we just want to keep playing good and being consistent. ... We just want to try and show people we're no fluke. Because the guys we've got taking the mound every night are guys that can get it done every night and the same thing for the position players. We just want to try and keep it going."
Kazmir, who moved to 4-1 on the season with the win, entered Monday night's game feeling close to finding the mechanics that led him to an AL-leading 239 strikeouts in 2007. A left elbow strain delayed the start of his 2008 season, but he now resembles the pitcher he had become by the end of the 2007 season.
The Rays' ace struck out the first four batters he faced Monday night and seven of the first nine while retiring the first 10 Rangers in order. Michael Young finally broke Kazmir's spell with a single off the glove of leaping second baseman Akinori Iwamura.
"Everything felt good," Kazmir said. "Everything felt like I was going toward the plate. Wasn't coming off of anything. ... For the most part I was consistent with my delivery. So I was happy with it, yeah.
"I can take a lot from this start. It's a big confidence builder to be able to throw my slider as much as I did. Because it kind of felt like I was babying it a little bit [before], I was a little timid. But now it feels 100 percent."
Kazmir allowed one run on three hits and no walks while striking out 10 in seven innings, reaching double-digit strikeouts in a game for the 15th time in his career. He has now won his last four starts, posting a 0.69 ERA while holding opposing hitters to a .148 batting average during that span.
Kazmir "was tough," said Josh Hamilton, the former Ray who went 0-for-4 in his first ever appearance at Tropicana Field. "He's a good pitcher, he mixes the ball up well ... Kazmir, he was great."
Once again, the Rays' defense rose to the occasion. Of note, Crawford catching Ian Kinsler's drive down the left field line in the sixth inning. Had the ball landed, Kinsler would have had at least a double and two runs would have scored, which would have cut the Rays' lead to three runs with no outs. Instead Crawford raced into the corner to haul it in.
Crawford "outran that baseball," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "That was the big play of the night."
Crawford said he just tried to "find a good angle" to make the catch.
"Thought I was going to have to dive for it, but I was able to run it down," Crawford said.
While the pitching and defense have been steady during the early part of the season, the Rays' hitters are finally beginning to heat up, hitting .300 (107-for-357) and scoring 51 runs in the last 10 games.
"It's starting to pick up a little bit," Crawford said. "We knew we'd start hitting at some point. We just want to try and get it going. Even myself, I'm still not where I want to be, but for sure I think we're going to pick it up."
Carlos Pena and Dioner Navarro led the way with three hits each on a night when every starter had at least one hit. Eric Hinske's three-run homer in the fifth turned out to be the biggest hit of the night as it gave the Rays a 5-0 lead.
The Rays seem to be enjoying themselves, but they seem well-grounded, too.
"It's real fun when you're winning, I'll tell you that," Kazmir said. "We've just got to keep it going. We can't just sit where we're at right now. We've got a long way to go."
Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.