Kazmir rediscovers winning touch
Confident lefty, strong defense ferry Rays to win over Yanks
ST. PETERSBURG -- Now, that's more like it -- Rays baseball, according to manager Joe Maddon.
"We pitched it, we caught it, we got a clutch hit, there was some really aggressive baserunning, a hustle kind of attitude -- I like the attitude," Maddon said. "Everything in this game was set up by the starting pitching."
And the starting-pitching duties fell to Scott Kazmir on Tuesday night, as the Rays defeated the Yankees, 6-2, at Tropicana Field, with a crowd of 32,304 watching. By winning, Tampa Bay moved to within 6 1/2 games of first-place New York in the American League East, with the rubber game of the three-game series awaiting on Wednesday night.
Kazmir has been stuck in a season-long malaise that saw his numbers flounder due to poor mechanics, a lack of command and the resulting confidence problems that led to questions about whether he could again be a top-of-the-rotation starter on the Rays' staff. On Tuesday night, the left-hander seemed to time travel back to the second half of the 2007 season, when he dominated AL hitters en route to winning the strikeout crown.
"That's as good of a game as I've seen out of him in maybe a year," Maddon said.
Mark Teixeira of the Yankees agreed.
"He was very good -- we give him a lot of credit," Teixeira said. "He can throw his fastball hard, locating it, and mixed in his offspeed pitches when he had to."
Kazmir allowed one run on five hits in seven-plus innings to pick up his first win since May 9 in Boston, ending a seven-start winless streak. The outing was his longest of the season, and by the time he left after facing one batter in the eighth, the lefty had thrown more pitches than he had in any other start this season.
"I had a good rhythm going, fastball was working," Kazmir said. "I was hitting both sides of the plate. I was throwing good out there. It was a very big game for us, so I just wanted to give our team a chance to win out there."
Maddon liked what he saw from Kazmir early in Tuesday night's game.
"I start by watching him as he picks his leg up and puts it down," Maddon said. "That is so vital to his throwing a strike. Even in the first inning, I said to [pitching coach Jim Hickey], he looked right, and he said his alignment looked really good in the bullpen. And he just kept repeating and repeating and repeating, and that's why you saw a lot of 91s, 92s and 93s tonight."
Even more telling to Maddon was what Kazmir did with Robinson Cano, the last hitter he faced in the seventh.
"How about the 3-2 slider to Cano?" Maddon said. "Cano's working a good at-bat. It's the last out of the seventh inning. And [Kazmir is] at his 109th, 110th pitch. He got behind in the count and came back and had the confidence to throw a slider strike right there, which he did not have a couple of weeks ago. Seeing him having that confidence that deep in the game was a good sign."
While Kazmir looked sharp, the Rays' defense put together a highlight reel on Tuesday night, particularly in the fourth inning, which could have been trouble for Kazmir after Teixeira led off with a double.
Alex Rodriguez followed with a shot to left field that Carl Crawford ran to his right to flag down. Hideki Matsui then singled to right to score Teixeira. Gabe Kapler fielded the ball before making a strong, albeit errant, throw to the plate. Catcher Dioner Navarro caught the ball along the third-base line, and the backstop alertly threw back to second baseman Ben Zobrist covering at first to nab Matsui, who had rounded the base too far.
Jorge Posada singled with two outs to set up the final gem of the fourth. Cano hit a ball between short and third that Jason Bartlett backhanded, then snapped off a throw to Zobrist at second to get the sliding Posada for the final out of the inning.
B.J. Upton finished off the night of leather in the seventh, when he raced to the wall in center to haul in a drive by Posada.
"Their defense played really well tonight and kept us from putting an inning together," Yankees manager Joe Girardi said. "[Kazmir] pitched really well, and they played really good defense."
CC Sabathia started for the Yankees, and the Rays scored their first run against the large left-hander when Zobrist scored on Navarro's sacrifice fly in the second; an inning later, Crawford tripled off the right-field wall to chase home Upton. Crawford then scored on a throwing error by Rodriguez at third to put Tampa Bay up, 3-0. Evan Longoria hit his 20th homer of the season in the fifth, and Bartlett had an RBI single in the sixth and then scored on Upton's double to put the Rays up, 6-1.
"I don't know what to say about tonight," Sabathia lamented. "Not getting ahead of guys, putting myself in bad counts, not finishing guys when it wasn't a hitter's count."
Tampa Bay's win evened the season series with New York at 5-5 while snapping a three-game losing streak to the Yankees.
"It's nice to see all of that coming together," Maddon said. "That's what we're all about. When we pitch and catch, we normally come out on top."
Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.