"It feels good to just get that monkey off my back," Kazmir said. "It's been a while. Today felt great."
Kazmir made just one big league appearance in 2011 after posting a 9-15 record and 5.94 ERA across 28 starts a year earlier. He spent the 2012 campaign with the Sugar Land Skeeters of the Atlantic League, and even there, he struggled, compiling a 3-6 mark and 5.34 ERA.
In need of rotation depth, the Indians took a flyer on Kazmir and invited the 29-year-old to Spring Training. There, he built off a decent showing in winter ball and claimed the fifth starting spot on the Tribe's staff.
During Cleveland's season-opening series against Toronto, however, Kazmir landed on the disabled list with a strained rib cage muscle. The injury delayed his season debut until April 20, when he toed the rubber in his hometown of Houston and couldn't make it out of the fourth inning against the Astros.
Two starts later, Kazmir demonstrated why he was once a first-round Draft pick and how he tallied 55 wins over a five-season stretch from 2005-09. More encouraging for the Indians is that Kazmir contends he's a better pitcher now than he was when he made two All-Star teams.
"Throughout everything I've been through so far, you have to be mentally tough," Kazmir said. "I'm a little bit more mature now. I turn the page and keep attacking hitters. When you're young out there, you want to be perfect. If one thing goes wrong, it can just snowball into something way worse. I figured that out and am going out there a little bit more relaxed. I know what I need to do. I know what I'm capable of doing. It's just [a matter of] executing."
Kazmir limited the Twins to two runs on five hits and punched out a season-high seven batters, his highest total since May 1, 2010.
"He's an easy guy to pull for," said Indians manager Terry Francona. "He loves to pitch. He wants so bad to make this work, and he's really dedicated himself to that. We're pulling for everybody; that's the way we are. But it's hard not to have a soft spot when you see what he's been through, where he's been and what he's done to come back."
A sizzling Cleveland offense supported Kazmir's cause. The Indians have scored six or more runs in six straight contests for the first time since September 2005. They have pounded out 12 or more hits in six straight games for the first time since 1936.
They wasted little time before jumping on Minnesota hurler Kevin Correia, who served up solo home runs to both Jason Kipnis and Nick Swisher in the first inning.
"I just kind of fell behind a couple guys," Correia said. "It was a 3-1 count on both home runs. I just didn't have command of my pitches like I did in my last couple starts. I fell behind guys, and they took advantage."
The Indians tacked on two more runs in the second on consecutive RBI singles by Michael Brantley and Kipnis. The second baseman fell a double shy of the cycle and has now tallied five hits and six RBIs in the first two tilts of the series.
It all proved to be plenty of backing for Kazmir. Save for the second inning, when he allowed a run on two hits and a walk, the lefty faced only two batters over the minimum. The result was something he avoided fantasizing about during his stint in the independent league or winter ball.
"I can't remember that long ago," Kazmir said. "I don't want to be reminded of it anymore. I'm glad this is out of the way, so I don't have to worry about it again. I'm just going to keep looking forward."
The Indians are looking forward as well -- to what Kazmir might be able to accomplish in a Tribe uniform.
"He was pitching in independent ball last year," Swisher said. "For him to be where he is now, especially with the stuff that he has -- he has a lot left in the tank, and I'm glad he's on our side."