MIAMI – Javier Vazquez's best start of the year began with a fast start.
For the first time this season, the Florida Marlins right-hander made it through the first inning without allowing a run. He went on to pitch seven shutout innings Saturday, and Florida defeated cross-state rival Tampa Bay for the second day in a row, 5-3.
"That first inning was not really on my mind," he said. "What's on my mind is going out and doing a good job, which I wasn't doing."
Vazquez (3-4) had made only one quality start previously this season, but he limited the Rays to three hits and two walks. He had a season-high seven strikeouts and lowered his ERA from 7.55 to 6.41 in his longest outing since July 26.
The performance provided a welcome boost to the Marlins' rotation, which lost ace Josh Johnson when he went on the disabled list Saturday because of shoulder inflammation.
"That was a great outing by Javy," manager Edwin Rodriguez said. "He pitched a good game against a good team. It has to be a huge step for Javy, and it's going to be huge for the Marlins. Whenever we get J.J. back, if Javy keeps pitching like that, we're going to have one of the best rotations in the majors."
Vazquez outpitched Rays ace David Price (5-4), who went 6 2-3 innings and gave up five runs, including homers to Hanley Ramirez and Omar Infante.
Like Vazquez, Ramirez and Infante are trying to overcome early-season struggles. Ramirez singled and hit his fourth homer and has seven hits in the past four games, raising his average to .224. In the seventh inning, Infante hit an 0-2 pitch for a two-run homer, his first of the year.
"With J.J. out for a while, not only the pitchers but the offense has to step up," Rodriguez said.
Logan Morrison had a two-run double for the Marlins, who improved to 129-107 (.545) in interleague play, best in the NL. Florida will try for a sweep of the Citrus Series when right-hander Jay Buente makes his first major-league start Sunday filling in for Johnson.
The Marlins had a 5-0 lead when Vazquez departed for a pinch-hitter, but they needed five relievers to get the last six outs and complete a five-hitter. The bullpen walked four batters in the eighth before pinch-hitter Johnny Damon hit a two-run single.
Leo Nunez struck out two in a scoreless ninth for his 17th save, most in the majors. He has yet to blow a save.
"We played a good game until the eighth inning," Rodriguez said.
Rays manager Joe Maddon used five pinch-hitters in the eighth, but the rally ended when Edward Mujica struck out John Jaso. Tampa Bay finished 1 for 9 with runners in scoring position.
"I love the fight," Maddon said. "I really felt we had a chance to come back and win that game. There were a lot of positives."
The Rays, who began the day with a half-game lead over Boston in the AL East, have lost three in a row for the first time since starting the season 0-6. They've scored just 27 runs past nine games.
"Right now we're all probably pressing a little too much," Damon said. "Some guys are struggling."
The slump continued against Vazquez, who threw a few 92-mph fastballs early but relied mostly on breaking stuff.
"He had really good command of his off-speed pitches," Maddon said. "I have to give him more credit than I'm going to take away from us."
After a 1-2-3 first, Vazquez loaded the bases in the second but struck out Price on a 3-2 pitch to end the inning. He retired 10 in a row before giving up a double to Casey Kotchman to start the seventh, then got the next three batters to conclude his afternoon.
The effort was his best since signing a $7 million, one-year deal with Florida after he struggled with the New York Yankees in 2010.
"It's tough to go out there getting beat the way I was getting beat," Vazquez said. "It was nice I could go out there and do a good job."
NOTES: Following the game, the Marlins optioned INF Ozzie Martinez to Triple-A New Orleans. RHP Clay Hensley (ribs) will be reinstated from the DL before Sunday's game. ... Rays CF B.J. Upton (left buttock) walked as a pinch-hitter in the eighth and is expected back in the starting lineup Sunday. ... Mike Joyce, who came into the game leading the majors in batting, went 1 for 3 to remain at .358.