Kazmir's comeback a Major accomplishment
Left-hander gets second chance at career by making Indians' rotation
TORONTO -- Scott Kazmir knows he spoke with reporters last week. Evidence can be found in the wave of articles about him making the Indians' rotation, a decision that completed his journey from baseball's scrap heap back to the big league stage.
Kazmir just is not sure what he said that day.
Everything after that early-morning meeting last Monday with Cleveland manager Terry Francona and general manager Chris Antonetti is a blur. Kazmir was hit with a heavy dose of joy and relief, an emotional mix that made it one of the more special days of his baseball career.
"I don't even know what I told you guys," Kazmir said with a smile. "I think I might've blacked out. I was definitely in another place."
Kazmir said it has finally sunk in, the fact that he has a place with the Indians, that he is in this place, Rogers Centre in Toronto, with a nameplate and a locker and a spot in a Major League rotation. For the left-hander, it is almost like he has reached the top of a mountain, and he is taking this moment to scan the horizon to soak everything in.
"I definitely feel that way, especially where I was a couple years ago," Kazmir said. "I'm very proud of the fact that this has happened. This is very exciting. I'm happy to be an Indian and I'm happy to start the season with these guys."
There was a point in time when Kazmir's fall from stardom would have seemed unthinkable. More recently, it seemed that a trek back to the Major Leagues was unrealistic. The collapse and subsequent climb happened, however, and Kazmir believes he will be better for it.
Two years ago, the Angels released Kazmir after he endured one rough outing in the big leagues and five forgettable (17.02 ERA) starts for Triple-A Salt Lake. His mechanics were out of whack after two years of tweaks to compensate for small injuries, and his velocity had dropped dramatically.
Last season, with no takers, Kazmir pitched for the Sugar Land Skeeters in the independent Atlantic League. He decided that he needed to solve the pile of problems on his own, and was determined to make his way back to the big leagues.
After all, in his early days with the Rays, Kazmir was a force on the mound.
He never let himself consider quitting.
"There was never that thought," said Kazmir, who was a first-round Draft pick by the Mets in 2002 and the American League strikeout leader with the Rays in 2007. "It was more just stress throughout the couple years, wondering, 'When is it going to happen? When am I going to figure out some things?' I never gave up."
Kazmir finally began to feel more comfortable with his delivery during his stint in independent ball, and dedicated himself to getting into prime shape over the winter. As part of his offseason, the 29-year-old left-hander pitched in the Puerto Rican Winter League for Carolina, which was managed by Cleveland's Double-A manager, Edwin Rodriguez.
Rodriguez saw improved velocity, better mechanics and a pitcher poised for a potential comeback.
Cleveland bit, signing Kazmir to a Minor League contract on Jan. 8.
"I thought it was really exciting," Indians pitching coach Mickey Callaway said. "Obviously, we didn't know what we were going to get at the time. But to have a guy who's done what he's done in the past, you're always optimistic that, 'Hey, if this guy figures it out again, we've got a great starter on our hands.'
"I think we got even more excited when we saw him pitching in the spring. It was like, 'Oh, man.' You could tell just by the way he was playing catch and long-tossing that this guy might be figuring it out again."
When did Francona think the Indians might have caught a break by signing Kazmir?
"Scarily, the first day when he threw that bullpen [session]," Francona said. "We got good reports from Edwin this winter. That's why we signed him. But when you saw him throw, it was like, 'Whoa.' I couldn't wait to see his next couple, just to see if it was like the first day, and he was letting it fly. He kept backing it up. It was really exciting."
Throughout the spring, Kazmir was one of Cleveland's most consistent starters, and he displayed a fastball that sat around 90-92 mph. He also featured a strong changeup and a slider that -- at times -- looked similar to the biting breaking ball he used to toy with hitters in his prime.
"Obviously, he's got a little ways to go," Callaway said. "He feels like he's on the cusp. I think that's where he's at. If he can just continue to keep on making that climb back, he's going to be in a really good spot."
It was a spring showing that convinced the Indians to hand the fifth spot to Kazmir, and to send pitching prospect Trevor Bauer -- along with righties Daisuke Matsuzaka, Carlos Carrasco and Corey Kluber -- to the Triple-A Columbus rotation.
"It's a really great story," Antonetti said. "As we told Scott when we met with him, he deserves a ton of credit. He overcame a lot of adversity."
And on Saturday, Kazmir will be back where his big league career began.
The lefty is scheduled to pitch against Tampa Bay.
"How ironic is that?" Kazmir said with a smile. "I know what the mound feels like -- that's for sure."