But Carlos Lee changed the course of the game in the sixth, knocking Kazmir out of the game with a two-out, two-run homer, lifting the Astros to a 3-2 win over the Rays on Sunday at Tropicana Field.
The victory secured the Astros' first series win in June, and it also marked Brandon Backe's first win since May 23, ending a string of three losses in four starts. Their 2-4 record on this road trip is hardly cause for celebration, but considering how scarce wins have been for this team in the last month, the Astros will take what they can get.
Beating a team that had a 30-12 home record prior to Sunday's game gave the Astros cause for celebration, as well.
"It's definitely a start," Wesley Wright said. "When you're struggling, you have to start somewhere and work your way back to where you want to be. This series was a big one for us because they're one of the better teams in the AL. It's kind of a measuring stick to where we're trying to go and what we need to do to get there."
The last month has been a nightmare for the Astros, who since May 30 have been swept three times while winning only five games. The odds were overwhelmingly in the Rays' favor on Sunday, considering Kazmir was a perfect 4-0 and had a miniscule 0.59 ERA at Tropicana Field this year.
Lee's homer was only the fourth Kazmir has allowed this year. Kazmir left the Rays' clubhouse without addressing reporters, but just down the hall, the Astros had plenty to say about the 24-year-old Houston native.
"That guy's tough," Lee said. "That's the reason his ERA is 1.70. He was throwing invisible fastballs. Everybody was late, everybody was missing them. It's funny the way it works. I got to two strikes and all I was trying to do was make contact. I guess that's what you have to do against guys like that."
Added manager Cecil Cooper: "The hitters were saying that the fastball was running in and running out. He's got good stuff. They have a pretty good staff over there. That's why they win."
Fortunately for the Astros, Backe was just a little better. He yielded a two-run homer to Evan Longoria in the second inning, but he held the Rays at bay for the remainder of his outing, giving up only three hits over the next 4 2/3 innings.
"He had his curveball, he hit his spots, he had his changeup," Cooper said. "When Brandon pitches like that, he can be very effective."
Backe ended a three-game losing streak and logged his first win since May 23, when he beat the Phillies at home after allowing one run over 7 1/3 innings.
Remembering where the Astros are in the National League Central standings, Backe brushed off questions about his personal achievements.
"Let's put aside the individual stats here," he said. "It's nice to have a win, obviously, under my belt. I know it's been a long time. But we're a team struggling right now, regardless of who gets the win or who gets the loss."
In the seventh, Backe yielded a two-out walk to Jason Bartlett, and Akinori Iwamura followed with a base hit up the middle. Cooper called for Wright to face left-handed-hitting Carl Crawford, who struck out swinging at a 2-2 fastball clocked at 93 mph.
"It was a situation where I was really putting all my focus into trying to get ahead, trying to get him to chase," Wright said. "He's a tough out. I didn't want to give him anything too good, so I kind of worked the count, then when it got to 2-2, I said, 'Let's see what happens.' I was able to get the strikeout."
Backe, watching from the dugout, said he was "ecstatic" when his teammate fanned Crawford.
"Carl's a pretty tough hitter," Backe said. "Obviously, he's shown it in the past. I like the matchup with Wesley against him, even moreso than keeping me out there. He prevailed. I thought it was going to be maybe a strikeout on a slider, and he showed me something, putting a fastball by him right there."
The Astros are only 5-14 in June, and during that time, they've watched their record fall from two games over .500 to six games under. On June 1, they were tied for third place and seven games behind the front-running Cubs. After their win Sunday, they were in fifth place, 12 1/2 games back.
"They're way better than their record," Rays designated hitter Cliff Floyd said. "Their pitching pitched way better than their record shows, so if you ask some of us if we had some opportunities, I definitely had some and I know some of the other guys will say the same thing. I know they are expected to win, because Cecil Cooper demands that."
Alyson Footer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.Less