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Former Rays star Kazmir rejuvenated

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Published:   |   Updated: May 31, 2013 at 10:58 PM
CLEVELAND -

Scott Kazmir flashed the same bright smile as he did a lifetime ago, when he was the cornerstone of Tampa Bay's pitching staff. His chin sported the same weak stubble of someone who still struggles to grow a beard.

His left arm is alive with a mid-90s fastball, and the strikeouts are piling up at more than one an inning.

On the surface, the guy who wears No. 26 for the Cleveland Indians appears similar to the one who wore No. 19 for the Devil Rays and then the Rays.

Ah, but this Scott Kazmir is an old soul.

He's 29, still plenty young for a left-hander with good stuff.

But Kazmir was released by one organization one game into the season, spent a summer playing for an Independent League team and forced open a door that led back to the big leagues while pitching in Puerto Rico during the winter.

So, this Kazmir, who allowed a run in seven innings Thursday night in a victory against the visiting Cincinnati Reds, said he is nothing like the one who used to toil under the dome at Tropicana Field, raising pitch counts and dashing hopes.

“I think I'm way better, just from the fact how tight my delivery is now,” Kazmir said before Friday's game against the Rays. “I'm developing more pitches and attacking the strike zone for the most part.”

Oh, he's not all the way back.

Kazmir said his curveball needs more work, needs to be more consistent.

“Once I get that down, I feel like I'll be a little more of a complete pitcher than I was with the Rays,” Kazmir said.

There was a time when Kazmir was one of the faces of the Devil Rays organization. He and Carl Crawford and Rocco Baldelli were the hope of better things to come.

Kazmir was an All-Star in 2006 and again in 2008 when he earned the win for the American League in relief. He led the American League in strikeouts in 2007.

There was that memorable moment in February 2008 when Kazmir predicted the Rays would be playing that October. A quick check of the schedule showed the Rays' season was supposed to end Sept. 28.

Kazmir was talking about the Rays making the playoffs, and he was right. He almost pitched them to the World Series with six shutout innings in Game 5 of the American League Championship Series in Boston, but a historic collapse by the bullpen that night sent that series to seven games before the Rays advanced.

“It's not that long ago,” Rays manager Joe Maddon said. “And then there was kind of a tough moment for him, and now he's rebounding and I think that's pretty cool. To be able to rebound and go through the stuff he's had to go through, the steps he had to go through probably, I want to believe, is going to make him better this time around.”

A left elbow strain in 2008 forced him to develop some bad habits on the mound, and that led to an ineffective fastball.

“Completely out of synch,” Kazmir said. “I just got into bad habits with some minor injuries, that I ended up not using my legs. I'm using nothing but upper body, I'm side-to-side where I don't know (if the pitch) is going to be down the middle or behind a right-handed batter.”

With $20 million left on his contract, the Rays shipped Kazmir to the Los Angeles Angels for Sean Rodriguez and Alex Torres.

Kazmir made 28 starts for the Angels in 2010 and one the following season. He lasted 12/3 innings, gave up five runs on five hits. He was released in June.

He resurfaced last summer with the Sugar Land Skeeters and was 3-6 with a 5.34 ERA in 14 starts. He said he found his fastball during his last four or five starts.

“My fastball jumped three or four miles an hour, and I was able to throw strikes with a little more consistency,” he said.

Kazmir pitched in Puerto Rico during the winter. His manager was Edwin Rodriguez, who manages the Indians' Double-A team. Rodriguez told new Indians manager Terry Francona about the two-time All-Star with the mid-90s fastball. Francona called Kazmir and told him about how he was going to change the culture in Cleveland.

Philadelphia showed interest. The Indians offered a minor-league contract with an invitation to spring training.

“It was almost a no-brainer,” Kazmir said.

Kazmir said he never thought of calling it a career.

“It creeps up in your head, for sure, as long as I've been out, but I was confident that I was going to come back just by how my arm felt,” he said. “I felt like everything was still there. It was a matter of putting together everything with my delivery. Something that I had no clue where it was going much less anything behind the ball. Once I got a little bit of encouragement, something to give me a little more motivation to keep me going, I just ran with it.”

Kazmir is 3-2 with a 5.13 ERA in eight starts for the Indians.

“Bully for him,” Maddon said. “I think it's great.”


rmooney@tampatrib.com

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