And now, a comeback story with buzz:
Two summers ago, pitching for the independent league Sugar Land (Texas) Skeeters, Scott Kazmir’s pitching career was so far lost in the woods that he needed a case of Off! mosquito repellent more than a postgame ice bag.
Last week, without any club officials scheduled to travel, baseball’s best team entrusted him to chaperone the game’s largest contingent of All-Stars—seven—as the Swingin’ A’s Midsummer Classic traveling party headed to Minneapolis.
“How did I become the responsible one?” Kazmir asked, chuckling.
A few minutes earlier, his cellphone had buzzed in the American League All-Star clubhouse. Oakland manager Bob Melvin was texting to make sure everything was OK with the A’s gang.
“It’s funny, how tables turn,” Kazmir said.
Or, in this case, not just how Kazmir’s tables turned, but how they sprung up, did some flips, pulled off a couple of 360s and then totally rearranged themselves.
Three summers ago, he was so hideous on the mound that a contending Angels team released him on June 15, choosing instead to eat the roughly $9.5 million left on his contract just to make him go away.
Now, third in the American League with a 2.38 ERA at the break, a contending A’s team handed Kazmir a sheet with phone numbers. If the bus scheduled to shuttle the A’s All-Stars from their charter flight to the hotel wasn’t there on time, Kazmir had a phone number to call.
“We were on time, and we haven’t missed anything yet,” A’s closer Sean Doolittle noted. “On the plane, we had juice boxes with chips and peanut butter-and-jelly sandwiches. So far, so good.”
The PB&J part may have been an exaggeration, but Kazmir playing an astounding role in Oakland’s o-wesome season is not. Signed to a two-year, $22 million deal over the winter, Kazmir, 30, has been an absolute rock.
“It’s been awesome,” said Kazmir, who lowered his ERA to 2.32 with another stellar outing Tuesday night (seven innings with just one earned run in Oakland's 3-2 loss to Houston). “The teammates I have are awesome to be around, the clubhouse is great, there are a lot of hungry guys on the team.
“Especially where the rotation is concerned, it feels like everyone sort of challenges each other and brings out the best in everyone.”
That best from Kazmir is something to see. Especially because it wasn’t so long ago when it looked like he was finished.
A two-time All-Star with Tampa Bay (2006, 2008), Kazmir was a key part of the Rays’ inspirational World Series run in ’08. But based on Tampa Bay’s ever-pressing economic situation, Kazmir was dealt to the Angels in 2009 as he was becoming more expensive.
Disappointing practically from day one in Anaheim, Kazmir went 9-15 with a 5.74 ERA in 28 starts for the Angels in 2010. His velocity decreased, his confidence ebbed and things only got worse from there.
In 2011, the Royals shelled him for five earned runs and five hits in just 1.2 innings in his first start on April 3. The next day, in a move essentially equal to placing him in the witness protection program, the Angels placed Kazmir on the disabled list. Reason: lower-back strain.
When he came out of it, starting an injury-rehabilitation assignment at Triple-A Salt Lake in late May, he went 0-5 with a 17.02 ERA in five starts for the Bees. His stinger was gone. So was the buzz.
“That was definitely the low point,” Kazmir said. “But, at the same time, it was a relief. There was so much stress I put on myself every five days and in between, to try and figure it out. To try and figure out something to get back on track. And it just wasn’t working.
“When I got released it was almost like, ‘Hey, I can take a deep breath now and clear my head and get to work.’”
Suddenly, that workplace became his backyard at home in Houston. And then, 20 minutes away, Constellation Field, home of the Sugar Land Skeeters. Former big leaguer Gary Gaetti was the manager, Britt Burns the pitching coach, both were pals of Rays pitching coach Jim Hickey, and as far away from the majors as he was, it was perfect.
“It was an experience,” Kazmir said. “I actually had a lot of fun. There actually were a lot of guys I played with in minor league organizations.
“It was comfortable for me. It was right next to my house. It turned out to be the right situation, a great venue for me to get my feet wet again.”
What happened, he thinks, is that he had gradually gotten away from his mechanics while pitching around arm and groin strains in ’08. Slipped into some bad habits. Couldn’t figure any of that out during what became a shocking downhill luge run.
He was out of organized baseball from the time the Angels released him in June 2011 until he signed with Sugar Land in July 2012.
During that time away, lots of thoughts danced through his head. Doubts, too. But never enough to put away his glove for good.
“It started creeping up in my head a little bit,” he said. “Especially after a year of working out, and you finally throw the radar gun out there, and the first pitch, you feel like it comes out pretty good and it’s 84.
“That’s when it starts creeping into your head a little bit.”
That’s also about the time he surmised that he needed to use his legs more, that he had gotten away from that. He refined his changeup. Added a cutter to his repertoire. Tweaked things until his slider and curve were more consistent.
“I give them a lot more different looks now,” he said.
It’s also far prettier now than it was in those early days with the Skeeters.
“I took my bumps along the way because I know it’s not going to be pretty going back to facing hitters after being off so long,” he said.
It was in York, Pennsylvania, when he felt things beginning to click again. He was facing a left-handed hitter, throwing his usual 87, 88 mph, when all of a sudden one pitch clocked in at 93. The next flashed 95 on the radar gun.
His mechanics were back. He locked them in. And the comeback now had begun in earnest.
With that $24 million contract the Angels wound up paying off, Kazmir, just 27 at the time, could have taken his money and lived happily ever after. One reason he didn’t was because of his parents, Eddie and Debbie.
“When I was out of the game,” he said, “I feel like I let my family down. All of the hard work and sacrifices they put into my career when I was a young kid, going to all of these tournaments.
“That was the motivation I needed to get back. I feel like I let them down.”
One of the sweetest twists last week was that Terry Francona, Cleveland’s manager, was one of AL skipper John Farrell’s coaches at Target Field. Francona and Kazmir got a chance to say hello and talk a little bit about the past. Kazmir went 10-9 with a 4.04 ERA in 29 starts last year and helped the Indians to a wild-card spot, their first playoff appearance since 2007.
It resurrected Kazmir’s career and launched Francona’s Cleveland chapter with what the Indians hope will be many more winning seasons.
Now, here he is, fastball velocity averaging 92.7 mph, set to lead Oakland down the stretch after leading its contingent of All-Stars on as good a major league field trip as there is.
“He had some goodies on the plane,” A’s All-Star catcher Derek Norris said. “Actually, this was the flight attendant, and the plane he organized had homemade fudge. I don’t know how much of a fudge guy you are, but it was pretty tasty.
“I think it was just the flight attendant, but she comes with the piece, so props to him.”
OK, so maybe that’s throwing a little too much credit Kazmir’s way. But after his lost years of 2010 through 2012, his story is still pretty sweet.
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