Kazmir delivers the KO punch to Fish

Kazmir delivers the KO punch to Fish

ST. PETERSBURG -- Scott Kazmir was unflappable on Sunday. Nothing -- not a marquee matchup against Dontrelle Willis, not a shot up the middle that knocked him down, not even a runner stealing third while he held the ball -- would shake the Rays' starter. The 22-year-old was in a zone, and nothing could destroy his focus.

Kazmir's low-key demeanor paid off, and he tossed eight shutout innings in a 3-0 win over the Marlins at Tropicana Field to become the youngest pitcher in 25 years to have seven wins this early in the season.

"He had it all going on," said manager Joe Maddon. "When he came out of the bullpen today, [pitching coach Mike Butcher] told me, 'Heads up.' He just said he ... was feeling really good.

"He had everything working today -- fastball, slider, changeup, both sides of the plate, up and down ... and of course, he was himself in regard to being very calm out there, so he had a lot of good things going on today."

Kazmir was on early and often, fanning six in the first three innings on his way to a career high-tying 11 strikeouts. He didn't allow consecutive hits and scattered just four total. Just one of those four -- a double by Miguel Cabrera in the fourth -- went for extra bases.

"It felt like everything was in rhythm," said Kazmir. "It seems mostly with me, that's what it is -- rhythm with my mechanics and everything. To have everything all at once come out and being able to explode is nice."

On the other side, Florida's starter wasn't exactly making it easy for the Rays. The 24-year-old left-hander worked eight innings as well, allowing just one hit for extra bases. Willis struck out three and walked three. In the highly anticipated, first head-to-head meeting of the league's premier young lefties, the outcome came down to damage control.

Kazmir was knocked to the ground by a Chris Aguila single in the second inning. He didn't even bother dusting himself off after the play, and he wheeled around to pick Josh Willingham off second base to end the inning. Two innings later, after Cabrera's leadoff double, he let his mind wander a second too long and held the ball helplessly while Cabrera took advantage, stealing third.

Kazmir responded by inducing two groundouts and registering his seventh strikeout to end the inning with Cabrera stranded on third.

"I was very focused out there," said Kazmir. "I felt like every pitch, I was right in there and staring right into [catcher Josh Paul's] glove. I really like the way everything went. Sometimes I would walk around and think about what I was doing wrong or what I could improve in my windup.

"[Cabrera's steal] made me think a little bit. Besides that, we were good."

Willis had a rocky fifth inning but seemed unable to stop the bleeding once it started. The Rays had half of their eight hits in that frame, when they scored all three runs.

Because of Kazmir's stinginess, only the first run really mattered.

And Jonny Gomes knew it.

Before the dust had even settled, you could see Gomes pumping his fist in excitement. Face-down in the dirt after a headfirst slide into third, the right fielder seemed to know even before he got up that his two-out RBI triple for the 1-0 lead was the turning point.

"When Kaz goes out, he just needs one," said Gomes. "It was good just to have one good inning, get Kaz the win. He's definitely in a groove right now."

It's a groove that's seen him go 7-1 with a 1.65 ERA in his last nine starts, and his May ERA drop to .065, tied with Oakland's Barry Zito for the best in the American League.

Kazmir denied feeling tired after the eighth but had reached 119 pitches, and trotted off the field to a standing ovation with a smile on his face.

"He knows how to pitch, he's proved that," said Marlins manager Joe Girardi. "He's been on a roll. I think he took a few lumps the first half of the season last year, but he learned how to pitch from that first half. But since then he's been as good as anyone in baseball. He just showed it again today."

Dawn Klemish is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.