On Friday night, Kazmir summited another peak within his up-and-down season, quieting the Twins in a 5-1 victory at Progressive Field. The lefty turned in seven strong innings, guiding the Indians to their third straight win and seventh victory in the past nine games.
"This was more the guy that we expect to see," Indians manager Terry Francona said.
Heading into the evening, Kazmir had surrendered 13 runs on 19 hits in his past three outings for the Indians, who took a chance on him this winter after he hadn't pitched a full season in the big leagues since 2010. There have been a handful of other setbacks sprinkled among the list of stellar starts he has spun for Cleveland this season.
A season ago, Kazmir was a former ace suddenly out of the big leagues, searching for answers and pitching for the Sugar Land Skeeters in an independent league. Given the long comeback trail he has traversed, Kazmir understands that he is bound to run into rough patches back on the big league stage.
That does not mean he has to like it.
"It bothers me. I'm a competitor. It really bothers me," Kazmir said. "That being said, you want to be successful every time you go out there, but you know just from not having the reps -- it's been a while -- that it's going to be a little shaky at times. You've just got to continue to keep your head down and keep moving forward."
Does Kazmir think about where he was a year ago?
"I don't think about that anymore," he said with a smile. "It's too stressful. I just stay right where I'm at. I've blocked it out already."
The missteps of Kazmir's last three turns disappeared at home against Minnesota, which could not capitalize on the few baserunners Kazmir allowed. The left-hander touched 93-94 mph with his fastball, featured a strong slider and piled up seven strikeouts (five in his final two frames) with no walks.
As far as the Twins were concerned, Kazmir looked like the pitcher that used to torment hitters in his days with the Rays.
"He doesn't look a whole lot different," Twins first baseman Justin Morneau said. "He looks like he's pretty much back to where he was, to me. ... He looks like he's pretty comfortable out there. It looks like he's kind of back to [being] that guy we saw a bunch in Tampa."
Kazmir's latest effort was rewarded with a sufficient show of support from his offense.
The Indians (37-35) first broke through in the second inning, when Michael Brantley sent a pitch from Twins right-hander Samuel Deduno bouncing into the right-center-field gap for a one-out double. Mark Reynolds followed by pulling a ball to deep left field for an RBI single. While trying to stretch the hit into a double, Reynolds over-slid second base and was tagged out on the play.
Cleveland grabbed a 2-0 advantage in the third inning on an unlikely sacrifice fly from Jason Kipnis. With one out and the fleet-footed Drew Stubbs on third base, Kipnis flared a pitch to Twins second baseman Brian Dozier, who caught the ball for a flyout. On the transfer, Dozier dropped the ball in shallow center field and Stubbs sprinted home.
"That was an unbelievable piece of baserunning by Stubbs," Francona said. "He has no business scoring right there."
The Tribe added three insurance runs in the seventh -- a pair on a bases-loaded single to shallow left from Kipnis -- to help make a winner of Kazmir.
"I'm happy for him," Reynolds said. "Being out of baseball, being in independent ball and finding his way back, it's just a great story. I've been really impressed with the way he's been able to throw strikes all year. He may get hit around a little bit, but just keeps pounding the zone."
Kazmir (4-4) put that on display at a critical point in the top of the seventh.
Clinging to a one-run lead at the time, Kazmir gave up a one-out double to Trevor Plouffe before slipping behind, 2-0, against Oswaldo Arcia. The lefty recovered, worked the count full and froze Arcia with a fastball for a strikeout. Kazmir followed by striking out Clete Thomas looking to end the frame.
"That was important," Kazmir said, "just to kind of keep the momentum on our side."
The hope now is that Kazmir can keep the momentum of this outing on his side.
"I've tried to tell him that, 'Hey, man, we're in this for the long haul,'" Francona said. "If we thought he would get through the whole year without some hiccups, that's probably unrealistic."