San Francisco Giants

Marcos Breton: A’s starter Scott Kazmir goes from unwanted to All-Star

S Earlier this baseball season, when the Giants had the best record, Tim Hudson was the story. He was the veteran pitcher acquired during the offseason after a horrendous injury suffered last summer while pitching in Atlanta. Hudson was the reclamation project who had become the Giants’ ace and most reliable starter as they soared early to the top of the standings.

On Thursday, as the A’s obliterated the Giants 6-1 to pad the best record in baseball and to take three of four games from San Francisco this week, Scott Kazmir was the story.

Dominating Giants hitters over seven scoreless innings, the lithe left-hander reasserted that he is much more than a reclamation project acquired by Oakland during the offseason.

Kazmir is the young man who had lost his way and was drummed out of baseball at 27 after being a two-time All-Star.

At 30, Kazmir is a minor miracle of perseverance. Like Hudson, Kazmir had injuries, too. But Kazmir’s issues were not just physical – they were also psychological. He had literally forgotten how to be a successful big-league pitcher. His pitching mechanics became so convoluted; he stopped being a starting pitcher and became a life-sized piñata. The Los Angeles Angels released Kazmir in 2011 with an ERA of 27.00 after one disastrous start. He was then out of baseball for the rest of that year and for all of 2012. Most barely noticed Kazmir during a solid if unspectacular return in Cleveland last season.

So when the A’s signed Kazmir as a free agent during the winter, some scoffed. What could this guy possibly bring to the A’s?

The answer is emphatic: After Thursday’s start, Kazmir makes a strong case to be the American League starting pitcher in Tuesday’s All-Star Game – his third.

At 11-3 with a 2.38 ERA, Kazmir is right in the mix with a stellar cast of American League aces. Masahiro Tanaka of the New York Yankees has one more win and is far more heralded in the largest media market in America, but he’ll miss the All-Star Game with inflammation in his right elbow. Felix Hernandez of Seattle has a slightly better ERA (2.11) and more strikeouts (145 to Kazmir’s 108).

But Kazmir is right there with them in every major pitching category, and Tuesday would be his natural day to start next. It would be a feel-good story of redemption and renewal in a game that celebrates grit and determination. Though Kazmir has no interest in speculating about it.

“No, I’ll talk about that when I get to Minnesota (the site of Tuesday’s All-Star Game),” Kazmir said in the visitors’ clubhouse of AT&T Park.

“(As a team), we’re trying to finish strong.”

The A’s are strong in large part because of Kazmir, the man nobody in baseball wanted two years ago.

With the loss of starters Jarrod Parker and A.J. Griffin to season-ending injuries, 2014 could have been difficult for the A’s but for surprising contributors to fill the void.

No one has been more surprising than Kazmir. The former thrower known to confront in-game adversity by throwing harder, Kazmir has become a poised pitcher.

It’s as if he had to lose the game in his life to find the game in his soul. There was never any doubt that he was talented. A one-time Mets phenom, fans in Queens curse the day Kazmir was traded to Tampa Bay. They viewed it as the reason the Mets remained in mediocrity by giving away great talent for bad.

In Tampa, Kazmir led the American League in strikeouts in 2007 after leading the league in walks in 2005. He pitched in the World Series – and then it all fell apart.

He could throw, but he couldn’t adjust when hitters clubbed him repeatedly. A trade to the Angels proved to be a disaster. Nagging injuries were tough, but his mechanics were a tougher issue, as they grew worse no matter what he did.

He was soon out of baseball. He had to relearn how to pitch. Getting back to the big leagues last season in Cleveland was one thing. But what he’s doing now is something different altogether.

“All his starts are the same to me,” said A’s manager Bob Melvin. “He gives up no runs or one run or two runs. He goes deep in games. He’s been as consistent as anyone in the big leagues.”

Kazmir can still bring it in the 90s, but command is his trademark now. Against the Giants, he changed speeds dramatically. Except for a hard-hit out by Buster Posey, no Giant put a good swing on him during Kazmir’s first turn through the Giants’ lineup.

Michael Morse got the Giants’ first hit in the fifth inning. They got only three hits off him in all. Kazmir struck out nine Giants batters.

The A’s improved to 58-34, baseball’s best record. Who did Kazmir beat on Thursday? Tim Hudson. The Giants starter who had looked like baseball’s best reclamation project has suddenly dropped four decisions in a row.

Kazmir is the story now – a great one that could go national if he gets the call to lead the A.L. on Tuesday.

“It’s very gratifying,” he said of his dream first half of this season.” “I feel like I’ve come a long way and I’m very proud – but we’re not finished yet.”

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