History beckons as Kazmir heads to hill

Kazmir looking to help make history

BOSTON -- Scott Kazmir has been readying for this moment, a start in Game 5, since the American League Championship Series began. Manager Joe Maddon gave him a heads-up about the thought process last week.

Now that the decision is official, Kazmir has to ready himself for an entirely different kind of moment -- potentially pitching the Rays into the World Series on Thursday night. That's not something that goes into the game plan. That goes into the mindset the Rays have had all postseason.

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"I'm not really going to think about it too much," Kazmir said, "about [whether] this win right here will take us to the World Series. I'm just going to go out there and have fun."

A quick opening inning that brings him back into the dugout promptly would be a lot more fun for him than the alternative.

Enjoy the moment, Maddon pointed out to his players when this playoff run began. For the most veteran pitcher the Rays have in their rotation -- a kid who made his Major League debut with Tampa Bay at age 20 in 2004 and has pretty much been part of the rotation ever since -- it would be particularly sweet success. For someone who went from staff ace to potential question mark down the stretch with slow starts and quick exits, it would also be redemption.

Kazmir vs. Red Sox in 2008
May 40146335
July 20057443
Sept. 90065234
Sept. 150136942
Oct. 11004.16532

To find the potential Kazmir brings to Fenway Park, his start here last month is a fine place to begin. He didn't pick up the win Sept. 9, but his six innings of two-run ball sent the Rays into the late innings with a one-run lead. Jason Bay's two-run homer off Dan Wheeler in the eighth pulled Boston ahead, but Dan Johnson's game-tying solo homer and Dioner Navarro's go-ahead RBI double off Jonathan Papelbon provided the Rays' retort.

That kind of success in one of the most hostile environments a visiting pitcher can find played some role in prodding Maddon and his staff to make the switch once their 13-4 victory in Game 4 put them on the brink of clinching the series. While previously scheduled Game 5 starter James Shields has lost all three of his career outings at Fenway, Kazmir brings a .500 record, a 3.02 ERA and quality starts in four out of five visits at Fenway over the past two years.

"We like the idea of him pitching here," Maddon said, "and we like the idea of Shields being able to pitch at home, if necessary."

Still, that same September outing for Kazmir showed some the troubles that have shadowed him much of the stretch run and into the postseason. His exit after six innings and 108 pitches was a no-brainer. Exactly one-fourth of those pitches, 27, came in the first inning. Six days later, the Red Sox went to Tropicana Field and put up a four-run opening inning on Kazmir en route to posting nine runs over three-plus innings in a 13-5 slugfest.

Daisuke Matsuzaka
2008 regular season
Overall 27 GS, 12-8, 3.49 ERA, 72 BB, 166 K28 GS, 18-3, 2.90 ERA, 94 BB, 154 K
Key stat 166 K
(10th in AL)
.211 OPP BA (1st in AL)
2008 2 GS, 1-0, 6.522 GS, 1-0, 2.25
Career 2 GS, 1-0, 6.526 GS, 3-1, 3.98
At Fenway Park
2008 2 GS, 0-1,
4.50 ERA
16 GS, 9-3, 3.34 ERA
Career 11 GS, 4-4, 3.02 ERA30 GS, 17-7, 4.10 ERA
Against this opponent (including ALCS)
2008 5 GS, 0-2, 8.734 GS, 2-0, 2.05
Career 22 GS, 6-7, 3.86 ERA 9 GS, 3-3,
3.27 ERA
Loves to face David Ortiz (8-for-40)B.J. Upton (1-for-13)
Hates to face Dustin Pedroia (16-for-28)Akinori Iwamura (9-for-24)
Why he'll win Big moment pitcher Seven shutout innings in Game 1 win

Whatever the trouble has been, it began in the second half of the season. Kazmir gave up just two first-inning runs on five hits over 14 starts before the All-Star break, piling up 17 strikeouts against just three walks. In 13 regular-season starts since the break, he allowed eight runs on nine hits -- four of them home runs -- with 12 walks and nine strikeouts. His first-inning average allowed was still just .191 after the break, but the home runs boosted his slugging percentage allowed from .217 to .489.

Kazmir's two playoff starts have been the same way -- 37 pitches over eight batters in a two-run opening inning against the White Sox in the Division Series, and then 38 pitches in a two-run first to start off Game 2 of the ALCS against the Red Sox. Those outings comprise the two shortest starts from the Rays this postseason.

"If I knew exactly what [the cause] was, it wouldn't happen, I'll tell you that," Kazmir said. "It's just frustrating how you feel. ... It just kind of has a snowball effect and you end up having too many pitches and give up a couple runs, and you kind of leave yourself in a hole from the very start of the game."

That, Maddon admitted, is a bigger factor into their change of plans on Kazmir than the success at Fenway. By starting him in Game 5, ahead of an off-day, the Rays can tax their bullpen if need be without worrying about the next day.

It's a delicate balance. By doing this, Tampa Bay can prepare for the worst-case scenario without hurting itself going forward. And yet, the Rays also must push to get Kazmir past those early struggles, which some have attributed to fastball command.

"At any moment, he can just catch fire," Maddon said. "The arm is fine. I've seen flashes recently. And I'd like to see him get off quickly tomorrow, that would be great. And if he does and he gets the first couple innings under his belt in good order, this guy can pitch deep into the game."

If he can get through the start of the game, the Rays can think about finishing this series. The chance is there. Kazmir believes he's ready.

"I was very eager for this opportunity," Kazmir said, "to get back out there and try to redeem myself."

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