Kazmir set to put shoulder issues to rest

Kazmir eager to prove that he's healthy

ST. PETERSBURG -- Scott Kazmir has heard the same question for the better part of the last six months: "How's your shoulder?"

To the young left-hander's credit, he smiles at the inevitable query.

"Shoulder's fine," he said. "Shoulder's perfect, feels great, feels 100 percent."

But how is it, really?

"It really is fine," he said.

Kazmir threw Saturday and said he felt so good that he had to fight the temptation to cut loose. Still, until Kazmir takes the mound in a game and pitches like everybody knows he can pitch, the million-dollar question for the Rays and the team's fans will be: Is the shoulder healthy?

Even Kazmir knows that.

"Of course I know that," Kazmir said. "That's why I'm going to have to hurry up and show something early so we can put this to rest."

Once the shoulder issue is put to rest, the focus can return to Kazmir's ascent toward becoming one of the best young pitchers in the Major Leagues.

How good can he be? Flash back to July 3, 2006, when Kazmir started against the Red Sox at Tropicana Field. Two hours and 20 minutes after tossing the first pitch, Kazmir had his first complete-game shutout under his belt. It was a beauty, too, as he allowed just two hits and two walks while striking out 10.

"That day he found a new changeup and that really gave him a lot of confidence, and he used it very effectively that day," remembered Josh Paul, who caught Kazmir that day.

Unfortunately for Kazmir and the Rays, the win against the Red Sox was his last of the 2006 season. He only made six more starts and, despite pitching to a 3.06 ERA, he was 0-3 the rest of the way, with the Rays scoring only 13 runs in his six starts. And during that period, shoulder problems interrupted what had appeared to be a special season.

Kazmir went on the disabled list from July 24-Aug. 11 with shoulder inflammation. He returned for two more starts but was then shelved for the final six weeks of the season as a precaution.

At the time Kazmir was sidelined, he was leading the Major Leagues (among qualifiers) with a 10.1 strikeouts-per-nine-innings-pitched ratio. Despite missing his last eight starts of the season, he still finished 12th in the American League in strikeouts, while posting a 10-8 record with a 3.24 ERA.

There's no reason to doubt Kazmir won't be ready to resume his duties as the team's No. 1 starter once the season begins. He's been working out since the middle of October, spending most of the offseason in Tampa doing a lot of shoulder exercises and general conditioning.

"I'm up to 190-193, I gained about 10 or 11 pounds," Kazmir said. "I just told myself I was going to do as much as I could in between time during the offseason to not end up like [2006] again. That was frustrating. So that's basically the approach I took. I feel good, doing what I'm doing now, working out -- getting my arm in shape and everything. It's paying off right now."

Kazmir can't pinpoint what caused his shoulder problem.

"It could have been anything," Kazmir said. "I never noticed anything until after the All-Star Game in Anaheim. Maybe I overthrew a little in the bullpen [warming up to pitching in the game]. I don't know, I think it could have been anything. I'm going to be more cautious getting loose -- just do that and hope for the best."

If healthy, Kazmir will bring consistency and excellence to the mound.

"You know what? He's a pretty consistent pitcher," Paul said. "I've never seen a pitcher throw 30 shutouts. So you're not going to have that every day. But he's got a pretty consistent approach. He's real easy to work with. You don't have to worry about him losing his cool on the mound. He knows what he's doing; he takes care of his business."

Kazmir exudes youth, and he said he's excited about 2007 and the team the Rays will have.

"We've got a lot of guys coming back who we had last year," Kazmir said. "And some of the guys who came up toward the end of the year, we get to see them now for a full season. It's going to be fun. In my mind, I feel like we're pretty stacked."

In everybody else's mind, they want to see a healthy Kazmir.

"I know that, I know," Kazmir insisted. "I'm fine, I'm fine. I'm ready to go -- really."

Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.