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Is the clock striking midnight in Tampa?

By Nick Cafardo
Globe Staff / September 16, 2008
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ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. - Attaboy, Scott Kazmir.

Great way to set the tone for your team.

First pitch, in the immortal words of Bob Uecker, was "just a little bit outside." Nine straight balls later, there were two men on, setting up a three-run jack by David Ortiz. Then came a one-out solo shot by Mike Lowell.

In one inning at Tropicana Field, where the Red Sox had lost six straight games, they sent an emphatic message to the Tampa Bay Rays and Kazmir last night: We can beat you, and we can beat you in your home ballpark.

Kazmir, who still hasn't taken that turn toward elite status that Jon Lester has, is still throwing far too many pitches. And when the Rays got a run on Akinori Iwamura's solo homer in the third off Daisuke Matsuzaka, what did Kazmir do? He immediately gave up a solo shot to Jason Bay in the fourth to make it a 5-1 game. And then came insult to injury when Jason Varitek struck for a two-run blast.

"It felt like my body wasn't there," said Kazmir, who surrendered nine runs over three innings and four home runs. "I felt flat. I didn't have the strength."

Kazmir deserved to get beaten up over his performance, but let's give him his due. He is a tremendous talent. He entered last night's game with an 11-6 record and a 2.99 ERA. But he has always been one of those high-pitch-count guys who can't seem to get you into the seventh inning often enough. In his past 10 starts, including last night's debacle, he hasn't been able to get past six.

Kazmir remains as much of an enigma as the guy he was pitching against last night, Matsuzaka, who often has the same issues, though last night he could have sat in a rocking chair and won his 17th game.

Considering how important this game was, it was the worst beating the Rays have had this year. When Kazmir pitches, that's not supposed to happen. Was there something wrong with the oft-injured lefty? Or did the situation simply get the better of him?

"You just have to shake this off," Kazmir said. "If anything, it's a wake-up call so we can kick it into gear a little more. I know we will."

His manager, Joe Maddon, was frank about his lefty's outing.

"With him pitching, we expect a lot more," Maddon said.

But Maddon said the game was easily put in the rearview mirror. "This is an easier loss to accept," he claimed. "You just have to forget about it as quickly as possible."

"I'm not going to get down on myself," Kazmir said. "I wasn't myself. I knew throwing in the bullpen that it wasn't how I wanted to feel. I was behind on the count on every hitter. Everything felt as if it wasn't in synch."

If Kazmir was tight as a drum, the Sox were anything but. They have been saying that they are really aiming to win the division. Now it's well within their reach, and they have the advantage of their experience in winning big games down the stretch and into the playoffs. That's something Tampa Bay is going through for the first time.

In this day and age, when winning the wild card is often good enough, it speaks well for the Sox as a team that being No. 1 means something to them.

Which is why tonight's game is equally important. It would not only give them outright possession of first place, but it's really the first time since Josh Beckett's elbow injury that he'll be unleashed.

Pitching coach John Farrell will monitor Beckett closely but expects few restrictions. He's another one who believes the team's mind-set is to win the division, which is why he would not hear any talk of whether Lester or Beckett should start Game 1 of a playoff series.

"We haven't even discussed that," Farrell said. "That would be way premature and presumptuous of us to do that at this stage. We're out to win our division, and that's what everyone in here is focusing on."

Kazmir, too, was extolling the virtues of finishing first.

"For our confidence, it's enormous," he said. "We know if we take the division we'll have home-field advantage and that's huge for us. We feel really confident playing here."

God knows why.

Even with the Sox in town, there were empty seats. The Rays have been exciting this season, but performances like Kazmir's aren't going to win many new fans or keep the casual fans interested.

Last night's paid attendance was only 29,772, with many Red Sox fans drowning out Rays fans.

"I thought we had a good crowd," Kazmir said. "Obviously, I'd rather see more Rays fans than Red Sox fans. But that's their fan base."

It was a night on which the Rays could have come out and made a statement - that they're going to keep their foot on the Red Sox' throat, especially at their home ballpark. But the statement was almost 180 degrees the other way. Was it one of those things? Or was it a sign that the Rays might finally fade at the most inopportune time?

One thing was crystal clear. Kazmir was not the stopper he needed to be.

The Rays, in first place for the last 59 days, are in danger of slipping to the wild-card spot, which considering where they've come from would still be a major accomplishment. But for a team that had first place in its grasp, it could be that some of the magic they used to get there might be turning to dust.

"You've seen what we've done all year," said Kazmir. "We really don't get down on ourselves. I really don't think this is going to bother us at all."

Nick Cafardo can be reached at cafardo@globe.com

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