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PHOENIX – While wearing the uniform of the independent-league Sugar Land Skeeters, Scott Kazmir briefly got to be teammates with seven-time Cy Young winner Roger Clemens.
It was summer 2012. And while Clemens was instigating a media circus by attempting his baseball comeback at age 50, Kazmir was navigating through some adventures of his own.
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The left-hander’s career had spiraled so badly off course that he found himself out of the major leagues at age 27, desperately trying to fix his pitching mechanics and recapture the form that once made him one of the majors’ most promising young stars.
Kazmir, still just 30, completed his long road back to the bigs. Now he finds himself the savvy veteran of the Oakland A’s starting rotation after signing a two-year $22 million contract in the offseason.
He’s reinvented his pitching repertoire along with his mental approach, and you won’t find anyone in the A’s clubhouse more grateful for his current situation.
“I feel like I’m in a good spot right now, and as consistent as I feel it’s only going to get better,” Kazmir said Friday after facing hitters for the first time this spring.
When Kazmir broke in with the Tampa Bay Rays at age 20, it appeared he might be destined for multiple Cy Young awards of his own. The flame-throwing lefty was a two-time All-Star with Tampa Bay and led the American League with 239 strikeouts in 2007.
But by 2009, when Kazmir was traded to the Los Angeles Angels, he lost his way. An injury to the adductor muscles in his left thigh led to Kazmir altering his mechanics so badly that he couldn’t find the strike zone.
“I stopped using my legs as a result of it,” Kazmir said. “I was compensating to get through games, and before you know it, you have bad habits and you can’t get back to what felt comfortable in the past.”
Other minor injuries also took their toll. After going 9-15 with a 5.94 ERA in 2010, Kazmir was released by the Angels in June 2011. With his career path uncertain, Kazmir went back to basics in rebuilding himself as a pitcher.
“There’s lots you can’t see on video,” Kazmir said. “I was able to pretty much go back to square one, where I’m working on just simple fundamental drills to get myself where I have a good feel loading, a good direction toward the plate. I think being able to take it slow and learn my body a little bit more, and learn to correct myself, that was the biggest thing. Before, I didn’t know how I did it, I just did it.”
A Houston native, Kazmir signed on with the nearby Sugar Land Skeeters. Shortly after he joined, Clemens – with allegations of PED use still dogging him -- hooked on with the Skeeters. Clemens pitched in just two games for Sugar Land, but he made a lasting impact on Kazmir with the pitching wisdom he dished during several dugout chats.
“It was more about game plan,” Kazmir said. “What your mind’s thinking about with certain pitches, what are you trying to accomplish with certain hitters.”
Clemens also was helpful because Kazmir –who mostly got by with his explosive fastball and slider with Tampa Bay – was trying to expand his pitch repertoire.
“The most I asked him about was the curve ball,” Kazmir said. “It was something I was really trying to develop, and he’s always been spot-on with his curve ball. Just some small minor details with my delivery really helped out.”
Kazmir signed a minor league deal with Cleveland before last season and was a terrific comeback story, going 10-9 with a 4.04 ERA and averaging 9.2 strikeouts per nine innings with the Indians. His fastball regained its low-to-mid 90’s zip, and he began incorporating a change-up, curve and cutter.
Those who remember Kazmir as a young fireballer see a big difference in the pitcher he is today.
“Right now, I consider Scott a polished product,” A’s pitching coach Curt Young said. “He has a quality change-up, a good breaking ball and he knows how to strike people out with his slider. And he’s still got that electric fastball.”
Kazmir will be the veteran leader of an Oakland rotation that won’t have another starter with more than two full years of major league experience. He’s also an example of the resiliency the game sometimes requires, even from those as physically gifted as Kazmir.
“He’s somebody who’s been an ace in the American League. He’s gone to independent ball and come back,” A’s catcher Stephen Vogt said. “I think that’s a really good person to have on a young staff. I think a lot of those guys can learn from him.”