Bats break out as Rays end slide

Bats break out as Rays end slide

ST. PETERSBURG -- The pressure was on early, but Scott Kazmir answered the call.

Kazmir gave up three runs in 6 1/3 innings and the Rays' offense took care of the rest, going 7-for-13 with runners in scoring position in an 8-3 victory over the Blue Jays in front of 29,632 at Tropicana Field on Saturday night. The win snapped a five-game losing streak for Tampa Bay, which had tied its longest of the season.

"It's always good to end a losing streak, especially at this point in the season where we're at," Kazmir said. "I think if we string a couple more wins together like this, we can feel a lot more confident about ourselves."

In the first inning, the Rays' left-hander had walked two hitters and knew his pitch count was rising. The first inning has been a continual problem for Kazmir this season. He was also trying to rebound from a poor start in Seattle the previous weekend.

Kazmir took a step off the mound and regrouped before facing Blue Jays outfielder Vernon Wells. And a few pitches later, after a 92-mph fastball high and outside blew Wells away for a strikeout to end the inning, Kazmir could finally exhale. And the Rays could finally get off and running.

"I put a little extra on it," Kazmir said.

The Rays' losing skid, though minimal in the long scheme of an entire season, felt especially severe in the magnification of a playoff push, and certainly, home fans were getting antsy.

A disappointing showing in a 5-2 loss on Friday night was tough to bear. Then Kazmir walked the game's first batter on Saturday and already grumblings could be heard.

But Kazmir, who has rebounded and re-rebounded several times himself this season, did not wither. He knew the implications of a win on Saturday, and what that first inning was going to mean for a team thirsting for confidence-boosters.

"It had to do something for his confidence, certainly," Rays manager Joe Maddon said of Kazmir's first inning. "I just thought he got to the point where if he needed to throw a strike with his fastball he could."

The 25-year-old starter cruised from there. After giving up two-run home run to Aaron Hill in the third inning, Kazmir retired 11 of the next 12 batters he faced, including striking out the side in the sixth. His fastball checked in consistently in the low 90s.

"I felt like I had good rhythm," Kazmir said. "I wasn't trying to do too much. I had all my pitches working."

He hit a rough patch in the seventh inning when back-to-back singles and a walk to Jose Bautista loaded the bases with nobody out and the score at 5-2. Kazmir got Raul Chavez to hit an RBI groundout to third base and was replaced by reliever Russ Springer, who retired the next two hitters to end the threat.

A two-run double by Carl Crawford and an RBI double by Evan Longoria led a four-run rally in the third inning, in which the Rays had six straight batters reach base and took a 4-2 lead. Tampa Bay added three more runs in the seventh on singles by Willy Aybar and Gabe Kapler.

It was a solid all-around offensive effort -- something which had been conspicuously absent during the last week -- with seven different batters getting hits and all nine starters reaching base at least once.

"We all put together good ABs," said Crawford, who finished 2-for-4 with three runs and two RBIs. "Usually when we're all clicking like this, we're a tough team to beat."

During the five-game skid, the Rays hit .247 as a team and scored just 16 runs -- a dry spell for a lineup featuring different hitters in the top five in the American League in home runs, RBIs, batting average and hits.

So the offensive paucity was not expected to be long lasting, and on Saturday it may finally have crackled to life. Crawford and Longoria especially provided spark, combining to go 4-for-8 with four RBIs and four runs. In the No. 4 spot behind them, Ben Zobrist added a pair of hits.

The win wasn't overly dramatic, emotional or even against a team in playoff contention. But it was a win for a team in need of props to its self-esteem. Four games behind Boston in the AL Wild Card standings, Tampa Bay remains in a hole. It seems a little shallower after Saturday, though, as the Rays shaved off a game with the Red Sox's 7-2 loss to the Rangers, who are a half-game out of the Wild Card.

"We need that to start building out confidence back up," Maddon said. "Confidence wanes really quickly, it's really strange how we permit that to happen. So we need to rebuild it up, and I thought it was a good first step."

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