ST. PETERSBURG -- There have been times when a Scott Kazmir first inning seemed to unfold in dog years due to the number of pitches it took him to record three outs.

On Friday night a different Kazmir took the mound for the Rays, and the positive results from the left-hander's outing came wrapped in a 5-3 win over the Rangers with 20,639 watching at Tropicana Field.

"That's as good as [Kazmir] has been all year, there is no question in my mind," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "Good team, strike-throwing, big moment -- I was really impressed."

The Rays' win coupled with the Red Sox loss moved Tampa Bay to within three games of Boston for the American League Wild Card lead, two games back of the Rangers in the race. In the process, the Rays improved to 5-2 on the current homestand, clinching their eighth straight winning one.

Kazmir allowed just three runs in 7 1/3 innings to pick up his eighth win of the season. But it was the ease with which he peeled through the Rangers' order along with his economy of pitches that might have been the most impressive aspect of his outing.

"I felt real good," Kazmir said. "I just executed on the game plan I wanted to go with. Strike one, I just wanted to get them in defense mode. It seemed like ever since the first inning I was getting ahead of guys and just getting quick outs. I was thinking first pitch, instead of just trying to just throw a strike, I was trying to throw a quality pitch to get a one-pitch out."

Kazmir needed just 85 pitches to navigate his way through the first seven innings, which is the lowest total he's had through seven innings in his career. He has now thrown six-plus innings in seven of his past eight starts after doing it just four times in his first 11 starts. Five of his last seven outings have been quality starts.

The Rays did have to survive some mild excitement in the eighth after Taylor Teagarden led off the inning with a home run to center field that made contact with the D-ring catwalk to cut the lead to 5-1. One out later, Ian Kinsler drew a walk before Michael Young singled to chase Kazmir in favor of Grant Balfour.

Marlon Byrd singled home another run, and Andruw Jones hit into a fielder's choice to drive in the Rangers' third run. Julio Borbon came in to pinch-run for Jones with slugger Josh Hamilton stepping to the plate representing the tying run, but when the count reached 2-2, Borbon took off for second. Rays catcher Gregg Zaun threw a strike to shortstop Jason Bartlett, who made the sweeping tag for the third out to end the Rangers' threat.

"That situation with Hamilton up, [getting the runner to second] really means nothing," Bartlett said. "That was really a big play. And then with Balfour [on the mound], he's quick. I saw [Borbon] looking at the coach. And the coach like nodded. I don't know if he said, 'Can I go?' But Balf's not slow to the plate."

Borbon confessed to getting "a little mixed up on the sign" before surmising that "it wasn't the smartest thing to do."

Rangers manager Ron Washington agreed with Borbon's assessment.

"You have to know how to play the game," Washington said. "You have to let the guy at the plate do his job. He won't do it again. He'll learn from it. You just can't miss a sign in that part of the game."

J.P. Howell came on to pitch the ninth for the Rays and recorded the final three outs to preserve the win while picking up his 13th save of the season.

Bartlett almost single-handedly accounted for the Rays' first two runs. In the first, he singled, stole second and moved to third on a wild throw from Teagarden, then scored on Carl Crawford's groundout. In the second, Bartlett pushed a bunt toward first base to drive home Gabe Gross and put the Rays up, 2-0.

Ben Zobrist and Carlos Pena hit back-to-back home runs with two outs in the fifth to hang a three-spot on Rangers starter Dustin Nippert and put the Rays up, 5-0.

"Nice two-out points," Maddon said. "[Evan Longoria] hits a bullet to shortstop, [Zobrist] follows up and then here comes Carlos. That's why, with two outs, you can't think the inning is over because there are two outs. A Major League team can strike very quickly when you have power like we did, and that was great to see."