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07/21/08 11:40 PM ET

Rays take series opener behind Kazmir

Tampa starter pitches seven scoreless innings, strikes out nine

ST. PETERSBURG -- Any Rays fan had to smile when looking up at the scoreboard to read Scott Kazmir's line after the fifth inning.

Kazmir's total pitches read 71. During the past month the count for the Rays ace after five innings has normally read three digits. So Kazmir continued to pitch late into the game, A's hitters continued to swing and miss, and the Rays took a 4-0 win Monday night in front of a crowd of 12,428 at Tropicana Field.

The Rays have successfully rebounded from their seven-game losing streak before the All-Star break by winning three out of four games since returning from the break and the Rays' record moved to 58-40. The 58th win represents a significant improvement from 2007 when the Rays did not win their 58th game until Sept. 5.

Rays fans weren't the only ones who looked at Kazmir's 71 pitches through five innings and liked what they saw.

"Nice," answered Rays manager Joe Maddon when asked what registered in his mind when he saw Kazmir's pitch count. "You look at about 15 pitches an inning, so when he was at that point, I thought, 'Good.' And, of course we scored enough runs and I thought we'd be able to hold them at that point."

In Kazmir's previous seven starts, he had pitched six innings or more just twice, due largely to high pitch counts. Monday night, Kazmir's fastball command was better than it's been in recent weeks and the results were predictable.

"He had good life on his fastball," A's DH Jack Cust said. "That's what he does: he throws fastballs. It looked like he threw some of our right-handers some good changeups, but he threw me almost exclusively fastballs."

After walking the leadoff hitter in the second, Kazmir retired 18 of the next 21 batters he faced, striking out eight in the process. Kazmir allowed just two hits while walking four and striking out nine. Grant Balfour took over in the eighth and J.P. Howell pitched the ninth to complete the team's ninth shutout of the season, which set a new team record.

"The main thing was me being able to locate the fastball to the outside corner on righties," Kazmir said. "That kind of opened up everything, my slider, my fastball, I was able to jam people a little bit and everything. It felt like after I was consistent with that, I was able to open up the zone a little bit more."

Kazmir felt good about his start. When asked what the most important number in his line was Monday night, that was an easy one.

"Seven innings," Kazmir said. "No question, no question. Take away those walks, it could have been even better. I just felt like I kind of lost my focus in the beginning. I was just trying to think too much about pitch count. I was like 'OK, how can I get him out in one pitch?' Next thing I know, I walk him in four straight pitches so once I get a hold of that I'll be able to go deeper and deeper into the game."

The long dormant Rays bats seemed to feed off Kazmir's performance. And where offense is concerned, Evan Longoria always seems to be in the middle of everything for the Rays.

Longoria singled home B.J. Upton in the third to put the Rays up 1-0. In his next at bat, he hit a 2-1 pitch from Dana Eveland into the left-field stands for his 19th home run of the season. Longoria has now homered in three consecutive games.

The Rays rookie third baseman feels locked in at the plate.

"I do [feel locked in]," Longoria said. "There's times when you get that feeling where you're just locked in and you've got to ride that feeling as long as you can because you know there are going to be ups and downs. You know there's going to be times where you just don't feel as comfortable as you should at the plate. I'm just trying to keep on an even keel and keep that locked-in feeling right now."

However, Longoria was hardly a solo act Monday night.

B.J. Upton singled twice and stole his 29th and 30th bases of the season, Willy Aybar hit his fourth home run of the season -- a solo shot in the fourth, and Jonny Gomes singled, stole a base, and scored on Akinori Iwamura's single.

Tropicana Field continued to be a haven for the Rays Monday night. They have won 36 times in 51 games there and the Rays won another three home games at Disney to put their season's home mark at 39-15.

Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.