ST. PETERSBURG - It's getting a little ridiculous, really. If this keeps up, Rays ace Scott Kazmir might want to consider taking off the month of April every year.
That's not to say, necessarily, that the time he missed recovering from a strained left elbow suffered early in spring training is the reason he turned May into one of the best months ever enjoyed by a Rays pitcher.
It sure didn't hurt, though, as proven - once again - by a 2-0 victory against the White Sox on Saturday in front of a sellout crowd of 36,048 at Tropicana Field.
Kazmir pitched seven shutout innings to earn his fifth consecutive victory. His personal five-game win streak is a career best, and he is 5-1 with a 1.22 ERA in six starts since coming off the disabled list on May 4 to face the Red Sox in Boston.
He lost that day, but has been virtually unhittable since. Saturday, Manager Joe Maddon gave Kazmir the lion's share of credit for the victory that put the American League East-leading Rays 12 games over .500 for the first time in team history.
"We needed a great pitching performance today against Chicago starter Javier Vazquez, and we got it," Maddon said. "The velocity was there, the command of his fastball was there. I thought he threw some sliders that were pretty good. Also, some pretty good changeups. I thought he was closer to what we saw at the end of last season today."
Kazmir actually has been better, statistically, than he was as he clinched the AL strikeout crown over his final 15 starts in 2007: 8-3, 2.39 ERA. As he has after each of his six starts, Kazmir said he still doesn't feel quite as comfortable as he expects to feel as the season wears on.
That should be a frightening prospect for opponents, especially considering he held the White Sox to three hits and struck out six Saturday. The only Chicago runner to advance as far as second base against him was second baseman Alexei Ramirez, who hit a double with one out in the first inning.
Kazmir (5-0, 0.55 ERA in his past five starts) admitted that, even in his wildest imaginings, he could not have dreamed of a better start to his season once he returned to the rotation. He credited the Rays' improved defense, which is tied with the Angels for the top fielding percentage in the AL, with creating a beneficial mindset on the mound.
"It feels like I'm a different pitcher now," said Kazmir, whose 1.22 ERA in May was the best in any month for a Rays pitcher in franchise history. "Not stuff-wise, or anything like that. But with the defense that we have, you just have so much more confidence now. You get behind in the count and just throw strikes, because these guys are just chasing everything down."
Kazmir also praised the improved bullpen, which successfully navigated its first major challenge Saturday without the services of injured closer Troy Percival. Five Rays relievers combined to protect a 2-0 lead provided against Vazquez (5-4) by a run-scoring ground out by B.J. Upton in the third and Cliff Floyd's fifth home run, his second in two nights, in the fourth.
Al Reyes got it started in the eighth by striking out Nick Swisher. Orlando Cabrera walked, and Jim Thome came on to pinch hit.
On came left-hander J.P. Howell, who struck out Thome looking and fanned Carlos Quentin to end the inning.
Dan Wheeler got the first out in the ninth, walked Paul Konerko and gave up a single to Joe Crede. Left-handed hitting A.J. Pierzynski came on as a pinch hitter, and Maddon called for lefty specialist Trever Miller. Pierzynski flied out to right, and Maddon signaled for recently recalled Grant Balfour. Brian Anderson flied out to center, giving Balfour his first major-league save.
The combined shutout was Tampa Bay's seventh, one short of the Rays' team record for an entire season.