DETROIT -- Both managers agreed that Victor Martinez's biggest hit wasn't his two-run homer. It was his RBI single.
Martinez drove in three runs and Max Scherzer improved to 8-0 with four-hit, nine-strikeout pitching in seven innings on Thursday afternoon in the Tigers' 5-2 victory over the Tampa Bay Rays.
The Tigers, who had lost four of five, took two of three games from a Rays team that entered the series winning seven of its previous eight.
"I love playing these guys," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "We haven't done too well against them lately, though. Their starting pitching is very, very good."
Scherzer doesn't have the eye-popping ERA (3.24), but he does have eye-popping stuff. His changeup was a key pitch as he matched Jeremy Bonderman (2007) for the best start ever by a Detroit pitcher.
The run Scherzer allowed came in the sixth, when Ben Zobrist walked leading off, stole second with one out and scored on a two-out single to left center by James Loney.
Martinez was the big weapon for the Tigers, hitting a two-run homer in the fourth to break a scoreless tie and adding an RBI single in the seventh to boost Detroit's lead to 5-1.
"He's huge for us," Tigers manager Jim Leyland said. "We just want him to do like he did that last at-bat. The home run is nice and all that, but he only hit 12 home runs two years ago and he drove in 103 runs.
"I don't think of Victor as a home run hitter. He gets big hits off good pitchers in tough situations."
Maddon said, "That ground ball base hit by Martinez was critical. That made it 5-1. We came back and got a run to make it 5-2, but that last run was critical."
Martinez ended Detroit's 12-inning scoreless streak with his fourth home run of the season, which came after Prince Fielder's one-out single to left against Roberto Hernandez (3-6), who otherwise pitched a good game for Tampa Bay.
Martinez's two-out ground RBI single to left came after Miguel Cabrera had singled off reliever Jake McGee's left shin and stolen second when Fielder struck out. McGee had to leave the game after Cabrera's single and Martinez squeezed a 2-2 pitch between short and third off Jamey Wright.
The Rays scored a run off Tigers setup man Joaquin Benoit in the eighth on a walk to Zobrist, a ground-rule double to right by Evan Longoria and Loney's RBI single to Cabrera at third.
Jose Valverde, whose last appearance came Friday when he gave up two homers and four runs in a blown save and loss, worked a scoreless ninth for his seventh save.
The Rays got a pair of two-out hits off Scherzer in the second, but Yunel Escobar flied to center. They had just one more base runner after that until scoring in the sixth.
"They might have the best starting pitching in the league," Maddon said. "Max's changeup is getting better and he's more aggressive with it. His other pitches have gotten better over the last couple of years."
Jhonny Peralta doubled to right center off the wall to open Detroit's sixth, stopped at third on Omar Infante's line single to left and scored when pinch-hitter Avisail Garcia hit a sacrifice fly to extreme right off McGee.
"We were trying to keep it at 3-1," Maddon said.
Cabrera, who entered the game hitting .507 with runners in scoring position this season, draped a two-out single into shallow right center in the fifth to score Don Kelly from second base. Kelly had singled leading off and gone to second on a hit-and-run groundout to second.
Martinez missed all of last season recovering from knee surgery in January 2012. Leyland gave him extra spring at-bats, but it was not unexpected that he would struggle for at least a month.
The two hits left Martinez's average at .231, but he now has 29 RBI, and with the season barely one-third gone, he could reach 100 RBI with the same strong finish he had in 2011.
"I was never worried about that," Leyland said of a bounce-back by Martinez. "It takes time to get back up to the speed of the game. I loved that two-out base hit (the single)."
Martinez said, "I just wish I had (hits from) half the balls I've hit good."
NOTES: Sam Fuld started in left field for the Rays in place of Kelly Johnson for the second straight game. Johnson has been out with back stiffness but does not think it's going to be a continuing issue. ... Leyland remembers well when he signed his first pro contract with Detroit on Sept. 21, 1963, two years before there was a draft. "I signed for zero dollars and $400 a month -- and I thought I was the richest guy in the world." ... Tampa Bay's Jeremy Hellickson threw his first bullpen session on Wednesday at Comerica Park since being struck in the head by a batting practice fly ball last April. He threw in the afternoon this time but not during batting practice, as happened a year ago when he was struck by a Delmon Young fly ball. "I got out there before BP," Hellickson said. ... Octavio Dotel is making little or no progress in battling a sore right elbow. Dotel has been working in Lakeland, Fla., at the Tigers' spring training base, but elbow pain persists and he's not ready to begin a rehab assignment. ... Tampa Bay's three-run rally after eight scoreless innings on Wednesday night gave the Rays 30 ninth-inning runs, the most in the majors entering play Thursday. ... Martinez left the game hitting .366 with nine home runs and 47 RBI in 65 career games against Tampa Bay, third highest average among active players.