That his A’s debut Wednesday afternoon came against the team he staged a career renaissance with last season was a bit of irony that did not escape left-hander Scott Kazmir. His former teammates with the Cleveland Indians weren’t going to let it.
“After the first pitch, I looked up at the (radar) gun (reading) and (Cleveland shortstop Mike) Aviles was screaming, ‘It’s only 89!’ or something like that,” Kazmir said with a grin. “Just trying to get in my head.”
Indians first baseman Nick Swisher, one of Kazmir’s closest friends on last year’s team, acknowledged that, at first, “I’m sure the boys were all over him. He was a big fixture in this locker room last year – we had to give him a little bit of (grief).
“But we couldn’t give him too much, man,” Swisher said. “It didn’t last very long.”
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That’s because Kazmir picked up where his strong spring training ended, throwing 71/3 scoreless innings to earn the win as the A’s defeated the Indians 6-1 in the first game of Wednesday’s day-night doubleheader. It was the longest scoreless outing for Kazmir since July 3, 2006, when he shut out the Boston Red Sox in a complete-game two-hitter – in what for Kazmir seems like another baseball lifetime.
At that point, Kazmir was 22 years old in Tampa Bay blowing hitters away with a mid-90s fastball. Two years ago, he was pitching for the independent Sugar Land Skeeters, before returning to the majors last year with Cleveland. Wednesday, he held the Indians to three hits, not allowing a runner past second base until the eighth inning.
Kazmir, who now throws his fastball in the 90-mph range but has expanded his off-speed selection, located well to the corners of the strike zone while avoiding walks – he issued none – and deep counts, much as the pitcher he was brought in to replace in Oakland’s rotation, Bartolo Colon.
Kazmir said he was particularly successful throwing his two-seam fastball to the outside corner, making the Indians’ hitters expand the strike zone and inducing weak contact. That’s also where having some familiarity with the Indians – and with their knowledge of him – may have come into play. Last season, Swisher said, Kazmir “would really pound the inside part of the plate, really commanded it in the second half of the season.”
“That was our scouting report,” Swisher said. “But today you come out, all of a sudden he’s pounding the outside corner. That kind of makes it a different at-bat.”
Kazmir said that after “the first couple hitters go through and you see them really being conscious of that inside pitch, that’s when I opened up the plate a little more, expanded a little bit more and had success.” He allowed only two runners to reach before the eighth, when Aviles’ one-out double ended Kazmir’s outing at 94 pitches.
While Kazmir, who had a 1.62 ERA this spring, said his debut was “something you can build on,” the result may have held more significance to his new employers. After seeing Colon leave in free agency in the offseason, the A’s also lost starter Jarrod Parker for the year to Tommy John surgery and are without A.J. Griffin for at least several more weeks because of elbow issues.
“I don’t want to say it adds pressure to (Kazmir), because he doesn’t look at it that way,” manager Bob Melvin said. “He just wants to be one of the starters. But when you lose a Bartolo to free agency and then (guy) like Parker and Griffin (go) down, his importance is key for us.”
Though his efficiency Wednesday was reminiscent of Colon, Kazmir uses a wider pitch repertoire that includes a curveball, slider and changeup. When he’s commanding them, Melvin said, “As a hitter, you just don’t feel like you have anything to eliminate to make him a little more predictable. And then his fastball’s just good enough to get it by you because of the off-speed stuff.”
Swisher, who also faced Kazmir quite a bit early in their careers, said he believes Kazmir “learned how to pitch last year. Instead of throwing 96, 97 like he was when he first came up, now he’s learned how to kind of mix and match, inside corner, outside corner.”
“I was sad to see him go,” Swisher said. “But like I said, man, whoever’s going to pick him up next, he’s going to do a great job.
“Two years ago (he was) playing catch in his backyard. For him to go out and do what he did today – on one side you’re upset. But the other side, you’re kind of happy to see where he’s come.”