Pressure off, Kazmir seeks redemption
Lefty has scuffled lately, but can give Astros 2-0 lead
KANSAS CITY -- So there was Dallas Keuchel, starting on short rest for the first time in his career in the Astros' American League Wild Card Game showdown on Tuesday night with the Yankees. And he got the job done.
Then there was Collin McHugh, suddenly on center stage, starting Game 1 of the best-of-five AL Division Series on Thursday night at Kauffman Stadium, home of the defending AL champion Royals. And he got the job done.
Now it's Scott Kazmir, the guy the Astros acquired in a non-waiver Trade Deadline deal with the A's, getting the call in Game 2 against the Royals today (3:30 p.m. ET, Fox Sports 1). Oh, if he can get the job done.
An Astros team that was the longest of the long shots to advance to the postseason at season's start after 416 losses the four previous years is a Kazmir afternoon of redemption away from heading home for Game 3 on Sunday (4 p.m. ET on MLB Network) with a 2-0 edge and Keuchel back on the mound.
It's a welcoming setup for Kazmir. With strong efforts from Keuchel on Tuesday and McHugh in Thursday's 5-2 win, there's no win-or-else pressure facing the veteran lefty. Houston already has won two games on the road this postseason.
Win or lose Friday, the Astros go home knowing they could claim the series by simply winning at Minute Maid Park, where they were 53-28, matching the AL East champion Blue Jays for the league's best home record. What a perfect time for Kazmir to exhale and enjoy the afternoon, erase any lingering negatives from his 2-6 record and 4.17 ERA in his 13 starts with Houston.
"He hasn't pitched the way he would like since he got here, but he has plenty of playing experience and he's been on many winning teams, so he knows what's ahead," said Keuchel. "He has battled through adversity in his career. We know he has the mental strength to handle all of this."
And why not? Confidence and toughness have become trademarks for this Astros team that opened its first Division Series appearance in a decade with a victory built on a six-inning effort from McHugh, who gave up a pair of home runs to Kendrys Morales, but limited the rest of the Royals' lineup to two singles.
And that came on the heels of Keuchel ignoring the Yankees' mystique to allow just three singles in six innings of a 3-0 AL Wild Card Game victory Tuesday night.
"This is a first for a lot of our team," said Houston manager A.J. Hinch. "We haven't denied that. We haven't pretended we've been here before. We haven't tried to govern any of the excitement or exuberance that goes on when you are on the stage for the first time.
"We have embraced it. I think our players enjoy the moment. We're going to have to deal with a lot of firsts if we're going to get to where we want to get. To watch our guys do it with some calm and ease, but yet keep their competitive edge and not let the moment get too big -- I'm very proud of that."
Enter Kazmir, a July 23 acquisition from the A's for two Minor Leaguers. Things started well. The Astros won his first two starts, with Kazmir tossing 14 2/3 scoreless innings. Then things got out of sync.
Eleven starts, 58 2/3 innings, 34 earned runs.
Kazmir has, however, provided veteran leadership for an inexperienced staff of which he was the only projected starter to have appeared in the postseason.
"Just to take every day at a time," Kazmir said of the advice he has given. "Don't get too ahead of yourself. Those guys are easy to talk to. I feel like they soak in a lot of things that I say."
Now Kazmir gets to put words into action. Aligned in the rotation to be ready to pitch that game against the Yankees, he instead was pushed back not only in favor of Keuchel in the AL Wild Card Game, but then McHugh in the ALDS opener.
That has put Kazmir in position to give Houston a commanding lead. He is eager for the opportunity.
"For them to have the confidence in me to pitch Game 2, a very important game, pivotal game, I think it shows a lot about what they think of me," Kazmir said. "I'm just going to go out there and try to do my best."
The bar has been set high for this young Astros rotation.
First there was Keuchel. Then there was McHugh. Now comes Kazmir.