Here is a link to my column about Scott Kazmir’s first start for the A’s. The full column runs below:
Once upon a time, Scott Kazmir forgot how to pitch.
On Wednesday — we’re talking the first game of a day-night doubleheader — he pitched for the Oakland A’s, made his first start after the A’s signed him in the offseason for two years at a cool $22 million.
The issue facing Kazmir was simple. Would he be the pitcher the A’s thought they were getting? Could he be the top-of-the-rotation starter they need — well, second from the top?
He was everything the A’s hoped for. If you’re a person who gushes, you would say he was sensational. He pitched into the seventh inning, gave up three hits, no runs, struck out five. Came out of the game to a standing “O.” Doffed his cap to the fans. The full glorious ceremony.
But it wasn’t just his numbers that mattered. It was his command. He stood on the mound, his white uniform glowing in the early afternoon sun. He held his hands at his waist and then he went into the rhythm of his windup, hands over his head, the right leg kicking high, the left hand slicing across his body in an arc, the motion economical, concise, uncomplicated. If he were writing prose, he would be Ernest Hemingway with those short brutal sentences.
Although Kazmir rarely got his fastball to 92 — in the past, he was a 95-mph practitioner — he put the ball exactly where he wanted, located it within a sliver, had the poor Cleveland Indians hitters looking goofy and overmatched and unhappy.
“At times, I don’t think he had his best fastball, but (he had) everything else,” manager Bob Melvin said afterward. “He has a great changeup, pitches in and out. When I say he didn’t have his best fastball, I mean velocity. He certainly had good command of it. That’s what it starts with, with him moving the ball around with his heater and mixing in his other stuff. He was fantastic.”
What makes Kazmir dominant? He doesn’t throw that hard.
Melvin again: “Because of the unpredictability and the command. If you can work on both sides of the plate, it makes it more difficult for the hitter to eliminate something, choose a side or eliminate pitches. And when he’s throwing the ball over for strikes — he even dropped some curveballs in for strikes — then you (the hitter) just don’t feel like you have anything to eliminate. And his fastball is just enough to get it by you because of his off-speed stuff.”
The A’s need Kazmir. Desperately. They no longer have Bartolo Colon. Jarrod Parker they lost for the season. A.J. Griffin is hurt. They have a big hole in the rotation and Kazmir is a hole filler.
In 2007, he led the American League with 239 strikeouts. Dominating. A phenomenon. He’s a two-time All-Star, 2006, 2008. At 30, he is not that pitcher anymore, does not have the raw power. He used to throw just two pitches — fastball, changeup. See you later. He’s added a curve and slider and he uses all four pitches — think of them as an expanded repertoire — and, although he doesn’t appear dominating, he most certainly is dominating.
It’s the difference between talent and experience. Or maybe the correct comparison is youth vs. wisdom. When you are young and have all the talent in the world and you are untested by failure, you may not understand your gift. Maybe you don’t value it. In a strange way, you need to fail.
Poor Scott Kazmir had to endure failure, really had to fail, had to experience his career as over before he could learn how to succeed.
Life is hard that way.
As time went on, he lost the feel of pitching. He lost whatever it takes to be a big-league pitcher. His fastball wandered toward the plate at 84 miles per hour, taking a nap along the way. He had no secondary pitches. He had reached the end. This is how much he had reached the end. In 2012, he was out of ball. Out. An afterthought. A footnote. And have a nice rest of your life, Scott.
But he cherished the idea — call it a dream — that he wasn’t through, although no one really cared one way or the other. He started all over. Had to. Started in the humblest way. He worked out on his own in his backyard in Houston. He had a pitcher’s mound in his backyard and he threw to a friend.
The manager of a local minor-league team asked if he wanted to give baseball another try. The team played 20 minutes from his house and Kazmir thought he had nothing to lose. It’s not like the team was a big deal. It’s called the Sugar Land Skeeters and it’s not affiliated with any big-league club. It’s part of an independent league, the Atlantic League. Which means
Kazmir wasn’t even playing organized ball. That’s as starting over as you can get.
He started to get back his feel. Last year, the Indians offered him a minor-league contract. He went to spring training, made the team, won 10 games. His story began to look up. He would gaze around the Indians clubhouse and grin to himself — he was in the big leagues.
The A’s signed him before this season, were convinced he had reinvented himself. “Reinvented himself” is Melvin’s phrase. It was a quirk of scheduling that he began against the Indians, his old team. He went out to lunch with some of the Indians just the other day.
After he threw his first pitch, Cleveland shortstop Mike Aviles pointed at the stadium gun and yelled from the dugout that the fastball was a measly 89 mph. Other Indians got into the act. “He was just trying to get in my head,” Kazmir said. “But it was all in good fun. I got a couple of outs and was able to quiet them down.”
Indeed. For the second out of the one-two-three first inning, he froze Nick Swisher on an inside changeup. Just froze him. Swisher slumped his shoulders and walked back to the dugout.
When it was over, catcher Derek Norris — he seems to be Kazmir’s designated catcher — spoke about Kazmir with pride, about his location and poise, how he’d proved something to the men in that clubhouse.
Did Norris and Kazmir talk much during the game?
“Not at all,” Norris said. “There weren’t many borderline pitches or pitches he thought he executed and they hit. We worked pretty smoothly. Whenever that happens, you don’t have a whole lot of communication.”
No need to talk when things are perfect. Kazmir is the man who forgot how to pitch. Then he remembered.
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