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More is less when it comes to Kazmir

More is less when it comes to Kazmir

More is less when it comes to Kazmir

Scott Kazmir was angry. The left-hander caught the fresh baseball tossed his way -- the last one he had was now bouncing down some stairs in the left-field bleachers -- and headed back up the mound at Progressive Field.

Kazmir reeled back and unleashed a 95 mph fastball for strike one against Oakland's Luke Montz. Still fuming over the solo home run he just allowed to Josh Donaldson, Kazmir followed with a 96 mph heater for strike two. The lefty rocked back in his delivery and lit up the radar gun again with another 95, which Montz swung through for a strikeout.

This was Kazmir's epiphany moment.

"I got excited," Kazmir said.

That sequence on May 9 marked Kazmir's first time reaching 96 mph on a pitch since 2009. He used to live in that velocity range, but, in baseball terms, that was a lifetime ago. In these days, following his fall from the game's highest stage to its gutter, Kazmir has been searching for signs of his prior ability.

With those three pitches to Montz, Kazmir found a piece of the puzzle.

The mistake Kazmir made was getting too excited. The pitcher discovered that he had the kind of velocity that had vanished over the past few years, and he tried to replicate that power too often over his next two starts, allowing nine runs in eight innings. In this season of trial and error, the light-bulb moment led to a lesson.

"It was something where I felt like, 'OK, let's go back to the old me,'" Kazmir said. "And I'd just try to throw it by everyone. I'd have success, but then I was too inconsistent with my location. I was trying to just generate power knowing that I had it again."

* * * * *

Twins manager Ron Gardenhire watched from the visiting dugout in Cleveland as Kazmir sliced his way through Minnesota's lineup for seven innings on June 21. The common refrain on such nights this year has been that the Kazmir looked like the pitcher he once was for Tampa Bay.

That is not what Gardenhire said in the wake of Kazmir's win.

"It's a different pitcher," Gardenhire said. "He still has a little velocity, but nothing like he did way back. He used to kind of fire the ball all over the place, keep you off-balance and keep you a little nervous, too, the way he used to let it go.

"He'd miss here and there, but then he would throw the nasty pitches. He's a little bit more in command of himself out there on the mound right now."

Told of Gardenhire's evaluation, Indians pitching coach Mickey Callaway smiled.

That feedback was a sign that the work Callaway and Kazmir have put in this season is beginning to pay off.

"He's a totally different guy now," Callaway said of the pitcher.

There are some similarities between the old and new Kazmir. This season, he has averaged 92.2 mph on his fastball. He was clocked at 92.1 mph on average in 2007, when he led the American League with 239 strikeouts. Kazmir's signature slider is also closer in velocity now (83.1) compared to '07 (83.7).

That is where the similarities end.

Kazmir is currently in the process of becoming a more complete pitcher. He is throwing first-pitch strikes at the highest rate (63 percent) of his career and getting hitters to chase pitches outside the strike zone at the best rate (29 percent) of his career. He now throws a cutter, curveball and an improved changeup.

Each pitch has a specific purpose. Kazmir can paint both corners with his fastball to get ahead or put hitters away. He buries his slider and mixes in the curve when he wants to attack the middle of the plate with a breaking ball. The aim of the cutter and changeup is to induce weak contact. All of this has added up to Kazmir's best ratio of ground balls to fly balls since 2005.

"If he uses those pitches in that way," Callaway said, "where he's never leaving the wrong pitches in the middle of the plate, he should be OK."

* * * * *

Kazmir pondered the question for a moment.

He was traded by the Rays in 2009, when his career tailspin began. He had a series of minor injury issues that led to a breakdown of his delivery during his time with the Angels. Los Angeles released him in 2011, and Kazmir wound up pitching in Independent ball with the Sugar Land Skeeters last summer.

What does he consider his low point?

"In Oakland," Kazmir finally answered. "I gave up 13 runs. Anything I would throw, it was flat and there was nothing on it. Everything was getting worn out. That was probably my low point right there ... I was just trying to get by, because I had no clue where I was at at the time."

That was July 10, 2010, and Kazmir became only the fifth pitcher since 1950 to surrender at least 13 earned runs in an outing. He was later placed on the disabled list with a fatigued left shoulder before returning and gutting his way through 11 more starts. After six starts (which included 59 baserunners in 17 innings) between the Majors and Minors in 2011, the Angels cut ties with the pitcher.

Kazmir went 45-34 with a 3.51 ERA in 117 starts over the 2005-08 seasons with the Rays, making a pair of AL All-Star teams. From 2009-11, he went 19-24 with a 5.54 ERA across 55 outings. He had 210 total strikeouts in that three-year stretch after averaging 186 per year in the previous four campaigns.

With no job left in pro ball, Kazmir set off on his path of rediscovery.

Kazmir went to work on his conditioning and delivery through Dynamic Sports Training and Ron Wolforth's Texas Pitching Ranch. He then took on a stint with Carolina in the Puerto Rican Winter League over the offseason. Carolina's manager, Edwin Rodriguez, also manages the Indians' Double-A affiliate in Akron, and he helped convince Cleveland to take a chance on Kazmir.

Over the 2010-11 seasons, Kazmir's fastball dropped as low as 86-88 mph, and he lost the bite on his slider. This past winter, he showed dramatic improvement in both areas, leading the Indians to roll the dice with a Minor League contract. He won a rotation job with a strong Spring Training showing, setting the stage for one of baseball's best comeback tales this season.

"I'm happy for him," Indians teammate Mark Reynolds said. "Being out of baseball, being in independent ball and finding his way back, it's just a great story."

* * * * *

Come Friday night -- roughly three years removed from that ill-fated performance in Oakland -- Kazmir will take the mound at Target Field for the Indians to kick off the second half of the season. It seems fitting he will get the ball, considering he could be on a quest to claim the league's Comeback Player of the Year honor at season's end.

Callaway said it has been a thrill to witness Kazmir's evolution as a pitcher this season.

"It's great. That's what I'm here for," said the pitching coach. "It's definitely fun for me."

Kazmir has been on his best run of the season lately, too.

He is 5-4 with a 4.60 ERA in 16 starts on the season, but growing pains were expected given his comeback attempt. There have been drastic peaks and valleys, and his latest streak is no exception. After posting a 7.98 ERA over a three-start stretch, Kazmir has responded by going 2-0 with a 2.32 ERA over his last five turns, dating back to June 21.

The question now is whether Kazmir has turned a corner.

"I think so," Kazmir said. "I feel like my delivery is more consistent, therefore my outings have been a little more consistent. I'm just going to keep at it."

Among AL starting pitchers, Kazmir ranks third in opponents' average (.182), walks plus hits per inning pitched (0.87) and baserunners per nine innings (7.84), fourth in opponents' OPS (.529) and ninth in ERA in the time period covering his last five outings. This marks his best five-start stretch since he posted a 1.80 ERA in his final five appearances in 2009.

Over Kazmir's last 10 starts for the Tribe, he has gone 3-2 with a 3.75 ERA in 57 2/3 innings.

"I've gone from being just a one- or two-pitch guy that is just throwing as hard as he can," Kazmir said, "to now, where I feel like I can manipulate the ball pretty well. I'm just going to keep working on getting better and being able to locate with all my pitches. That's the key."

This is not the same old Kazmir.

Far from it.

"He just gripped it and ripped it," Indians manager Terry Francona said of Kazmir in his youth. "It was power, power, power. Breaking ball power. Fastball power. Now, he stays in his delivery better. He's still got plenty on his fastball -- not maybe what he had -- but he's probably more of a pitcher."

Jordan Bastian is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Major League Bastian, and follow him on Twitter @MLBastian. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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