Scott Kazmir shouldn't be here, pitching in the major leagues for the Cleveland Indians, throwing 94 mph fastballs and changeups that dance like Ginger Rogers. He should be just another casualty of the rigors of a job that shreds elbows and shoulders and leaves young men looking backwards at their life, questioning the disappearance of their gift.
Kazmir pitched poorly in 2009, spending time on the disabled list with elbow problems and getting traded from the Tampa Bay Rays to the Los Angeles Angels. He was worse in 2010 and battled shoulder issues. He made one start with the Angels in 2011, had neither velocity nor command, made a few starts in Triple-A, allowed 30 runs in 15 innings and got released, still owed $14.5 million. He was just 27, and his future was behind him.
He had made a lot of money in the game and could have walked away, but what's a 28-year-old man who has spent life throwing a baseball supposed to do? He pitched last season for a team called the Sugar Land Skeeters of the independent Atlantic League. He wasn't alone in refusing to give up major league dreams. Ten other former major leaguers pitched for the Skeeters, including former Houston Astros outfielder Jason Lane, who was trying to make it as a pitcher. Roger Clemens started two games late in the season. He was 49 and didn't allow a run in eight innings. Kazmir made 14 starts and finished with a 5.34 ERA.
He pitched in the Puerto Rican winter league, and the Indians saw a guy throwing 94 instead of 84. Injuries had once fouled up his mechanics but he was smoothing them out again. The Indians signed him to a minor league contract. What did they have to lose? Their starters had a 5.25 ERA in 2012. Still, it seemed Clemens would have been a better bet to succeed than Kazmir.
But there he was on Wednesday night in Baltimore, taking a no-hitter into the seventh inning. Yes, THAT Scott Kazmir, screamed Twitter in disbelief. I turned the game on in the sixth inning, and the Indians announcers raved about his great fastball command and terrific changeup. He got Danny Valencia to fly out, Alexi Casilla to ground out and blew a 95 mph fastball past Nick Markakis for strike three. He looked like the Kazmir who had reached the majors with Tampa Bay at age 20 and led the American League in strikeouts at age 23. Fastball, slider, changeup, and when you command the fastball like he was doing, the off-speed becomes tough to hit:
Manny Machado led off the seventh. Fastball up too high and then that Ginger Rogers changeup tailing away from Machado for a swing and miss. Then a fastball inside; not a bad pitch, but Machado loves to yank those inside pitches down the third-base line, and with Lonnie Chisenhall playing well off the bag at third, the ball scooted into the corner for a double.
The Orioles would score an unearned run that inning -- Kazmir had Machado picked off second but Asdrubal Cabrera missed the pickoff throw. While warming up in the eighth he left with back spasms, which manager Terry Francona said he'd been pitching through for three innings. The Orioles would take the lead but then Cleveland would rally off Orioles closer Jim Johnson to win it in the ninth 4-3. Jason Giambi, another baseball lifer, 42 years young, delivered a key double.
"This was one of those games where it would've been just a killer loss and ends up being a great win," Francona said.
Kazmir didn't get the win, and, hopefully, the back issue isn't significant. He might not even last the season in the Cleveland rotation; his job was in jeopardy when his ERA rose to 6.35 in mid-May, but he's been better since, so give the Indians credit for not dumping him too soon. His health record has always been spotty, even when he was good, but he showed Wednesday that he still has major league stuff, and when he commands the fastball he can dominate good lineups.
We pay attention to the big stories in baseball -- Miguel Cabrera's monster numbers, Yasiel Puig's cannonade start to his career, Matt Harvey's ascendancy -- but the sport is full of little stories, and Kazmir is one of those. Every team has them; we know all of them on our favorite team. Kazmir's comeback from the depths of destruction certainly ranks as one of the most surprising.
Oh, one more note the Tigers lost on Wednesday. The Indians are just 2½ games out of first place.