10/21/08 6:40 PM ET
Kazmir is ideal choice for Game 1
Rays ace takes spotlight after several losing seasons
By Bryan Hoch / MLB.com
Donning a blue Rays cap adorned with the World Series logo above his left ear, Kazmir -- the Game 1 starter when the World Series begins Wednesday -- can finally see the time is here.
"It means everything to me, it really does, especially for this city," Kazmir said. "It's pretty much worth the wait for what we had to go through the past four years -- not really having a winning season and always kind of in a rebuilding stage. So it's worth everything right now, being in the World Series."
Kazmir has been with the Rays franchise for some of its darkest days under the cloudy white roof of the Trop. Acquired in a July 2004 trade with the New York Mets, Kazmir saw the seeds of progress being planted in St. Petersburg.
He believed, so much so that he agreed to a long-term contract extension with Tampa Bay in May. Kazmir thought the Rays -- 66-96 last season -- would eventually be a contending force in the American League East, but even in a clubhouse led by a "dreamer" in Joe Maddon, Kazmir couldn't have predicted it would happen so soon.
In his last postseason start, Kazmir started the Rays' ill-fated Game 5 at Fenway Park and shut down the Red Sox on two hits through six innings, though the performance would become a footnote when Boston scored eight unanswered runs late to send the ALCS back to Tropicana Field.
"It's definitely a confidence booster going into this next game," Kazmir said. "Everything was feeling comfortable for me and I was able to throw all my pitches, even behind in the count, and be able to work both sides of the plate. I feel like I can feed off my last start."
Tale of the Tape: Game 1 Starters
|2008 REGULAR SEASON|
|Overall||33 GS, 14-10, 3.09 ERA, 53 BB, 196 K||27 GS, 12-8, 3.49 ERA, 70 BB, 166K|
|Key stat||1.082 WHIP (led NL)||4.14 BB/9 IP (3rd highest in AL, min 150 IP)|
|2008||3 GS, 3-0, 1,23||3 GS, 1-0, 4.02|
|Career||4 GS, 3-1, 1.88||3 GS, 1-0, 4.02|
|AT TROPICANA FIELD|
|2008||NR||14 GS, 8-2, 2.90|
|Career||NR||60 GS, 21-14, 3.11|
|AGAINST THIS OPPONENT|
|2008 regular season||NR||NR|
|Career||1 GS, 0-1, 12.27||1 GS, 1-0, 3.60|
|Why he'll win||8-3, 2.12 in last 13 starts (incl. playoffs)||15-9, 2.90 career on 5 days rest|
|Pitcher beware||3-5, 5.62 lifetime vs. AL teams||Allowed 18 HR in 85 IP since All-Star (incl. playoffs)|
|Bottom line||Ready for his close-up||Seeking Game 5 repeat|
Rays manager Joe Maddon said the fact that Kazmir began to sprinkle in more sliders against the Red Sox was a positive sign, as well as the incorporation of a good changeup. Kazmir said the sliders were part of a conscious effort to expand his repertoire, though the bread and butter is still the fastball.
"It kind of seemed like for pretty much the entire season, that I was a little tense in throwing my slider, because it felt like it was tough to be able to get out there and get extended," Kazmir said.
"So with this last start that I had, I kind of just wanted to establish it early and get a good feel for it early in the game, and it helped me out in the late innings. I ended up getting more comfortable with it early in the game, and used it in late situations, even behind in the count to get hitters out."
The most important aspect Kazmir needs to showcase on Wednesday will be the command of the fastball that first opened the Rays' eyes four years ago -- when he doesn't have it, as has been the case during some of his up-and-down games this season, it can make for a long evening.
"I felt like if you don't really have that, you get behind in the count and you can't work the other pitches in," Kazmir said. "So that's kind of how it got me in trouble on previous outings. I think the fastball command, if that's going good, then you end up having a fairly good day."
Maddon said that he has tried to promote a more narrow focus to Kazmir, running through checkpoints to see the catcher's glove and prevent overthinking.
"When it comes to this game, there's so much time to pause and reflect before something happens," Maddon said. "And that's why I used to love playing football. You never had that time. You get hit once and you're good.
"In baseball, you have all the intermediate time that causes all the concern. If [Kazmir] could get back into the flow of things and just throw the ball, he's going to be fine."
Kazmir's selection as the Game 1 starter for the Rays is appropriate for a variety of reasons, but notably because he was a notable figure in the box score that ensured Game 1 would be played at an American League stadium.
Kazmir's October starts
Kazmir was the winning pitcher in the July 15 All-Star Game at Yankee Stadium, throwing a scoreless 15th inning in a contest he never expected to pitch in. The American League defeated the National League, 4-3, when Michael Young scored Justin Morneau with a sacrifice fly.
The victory in his back pocket, only upon returning to St. Petersburg did Kazmir engage teammates Evan Longoria and Dioner Navarro in conversation. Kazmir realized that the three outs he recorded in the Midsummer Classic might just pay dividends come a certain long-awaited October evening at the Trop, where the Rays have played better than anyone all season long.
"We knew that this game that we were playing really meant something to us, because in the long run, it would really give us an advantage, hopefully for the World Series," Kazmir said. "You couldn't ask for anything more, especially the way we played here. So in the back of our head, we knew how much this game meant to us as a team."
Bryan Hoch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.