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Joe Henderson Columns

Kazmir's best effort of '09 comes at a perfect time for the Rays

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Published:   |   Updated: March 23, 2013 at 04:13 AM
ST. PETERSBURG -

Scott Kazmir has been telling everyone who asked - and plenty have - that he feels just fine. His left arm, his elbow, his shoulder, his outlook on life, it's all good. Most people nodded politely, but being skeptical creatures, we kept looking at things like his pitching line and the scoreboard.

Those things were telling a different tale.

Well folks, on a night that had the scent of "do or die" for the Rays at Tropicana Field, everybody got their stories straight. Kazmir pitched as fine as he has insisted he felt, and against arguably the hottest team in baseball at that. He completed seven innings for the first time this season and allowed the New York Yankees a paltry run and only five hits.

When he left after allowing a leadoff single in eighth, the crowd of 32,304 stood to salute by far his finest outing of an enigmatic season. Fans started cheering as soon as Manager Joe Maddon started toward the mound and they didn't stop until Kazmir was inside the Rays dugout.

A few minutes later, the Rays had a 6-2 victory and Kazmir had his first win since May 9. It keeps them in the picture in the American League East, just as the Yankees were threatening to pull away. It's only one night, only one win, but it was balm for Kazmir and a jolt of feel-good for a team and a pitcher that needed some.

"That's as good of a game as I've seen out of him I would say in about maybe a year," Maddon said.

Basically everything that can go wrong this season for Kazmir has done so. Opponents were hitting .289 against him before this game and his WHIP - walks and hits per innings pitched - was 1.72, ranking 208th in the A.L. and higher than the collective staff of the Washington Nationals (or any other staff in baseball, for that matter).

"I know he's been trying so hard to find it and get back to where everybody knows he can pitch," second baseman Ben Zobrist said. "Tonight, just the way he came through in such a big game for us, was huge. I don't think we can put it into words how big that was for him and for the rest of the team.

"The spots Navvy catcher Dioner Navarro was calling, he wasn't missing by much when he was missing. At the beginning of the season and a few times lately as well, when he starts out and he is missing that spot by a lot or just having a hard time getting a feel for it, you can see that too. Spot on tonight, though. From the first pitch on it just seemed like he was locked in."

There has been the inevitable chatter that he was on the trading block, and even though that doesn't appear likely, Kazmir admitted "it crossed my mind" that this might be his final start with the Rays. The truth is, the Rays really need Kazmir to simply pitch like he can. If he does that, most anything they would get in a trade would be a wash at best.

He has insisted that most of his troubles were mechanical, which has led Maddon to focus on things like how Kazmir plants his front leg on releasing the ball. After the first few pitches Kazmir threw in this game, Maddon said he turned to pitching coach Jim Hickey and said, "He just looks right."

Kazmir said he also had the same sense early in the game. He was throwing his fastball for strikes and his slider kept the Yankees off-balance. We know of his tendency to pile on pitches, but he ran up just 113 in seven-plus innings. Maddon let him go out for the eighth, even though Grant Balfour was ready in the bullpen. Kazmir said he was lobbying hard in the dugout between innings for just that chance.

The Rays needed something special like this, especially after an 11-4 scalding the night before, and everyone at the Trop knew it. The ovation Kazmir received when he left was as loud and sustained as any Ray has gotten this year.

"It was a little emotional, it was," he said. "To get an ovation like that is special. I'll remember that for a long time."

Like we said, it's just one game. The timing couldn't have been better for Kazmir or the Rays, though. On a night when they absolutely had to have him, he was there. With everything that was at stake, that's all anyone can ask for now.

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