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For Tampa Bay Rays ace Scott Kazmir, this first start won't be the same

BOSTON — He'll begin his season tonight at Fenway Park, just like he did last year. But for Scott Kazmir, that's about the only thing the same.

Last season, he was coming off an extended stay on the disabled list after a spring elbow injury. He wasn't sure what to expect that May 4 afternoon, and it turned out to be a rough start to a season of inconsistency.

Kazmir starts tonight not only feeling exceptionally well but equipped with two things he didn't have most of last season: his slider and the confidence that comes with it.

"Confidence is definitely there considering what it was last year," he said. "It just seems like it's a different year. I'm just excited to start the season completely healthy."

The slider is an important complement for Kazmir, making his fastball and changeup more effective and allowing him to finish off batters more quickly, and he said he plans to use it liberally tonight. If effective, it should push his strikeouts up and keep his pitch count down — by reducing the high number of foul balls hit off him, a major-league high 44.1 percent of pitches swung at were fouled off — and ultimately allow him to pitch deeper into games.

"There's a lot more excitement," Kazmir said. "You don't really feel you're limited to certain pitches or whatnot. You feel you have your whole arsenal out there. It's going to be fun out there."

Much of last season, he was essentially a two-pitch pitcher. He ran off an impressive streak early, winning six straight, and was selected to the All-Star Game, but he struggled as the season went on, his location was not as sharp, and opponents adjusted.

"It's tough to face those major-league hitters with only two pitches," he said. "They know what they're doing, they watch enough video, and they can adjust. It's nice to have that third pitch in there. It kind of feels like it's the equalizer."

Manager Joe Maddon has been pleased not only with the pitches Kazmir was throwing at the end of spring training but how he was throwing them, raving about the consistency of his delivery.

"I'd like to see him continue doing what he has been doing," Maddon said. "I thought he looked very good."

For Tampa Bay Rays ace Scott Kazmir, this first start won't be the same 04/07/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, April 8, 2009 6:47am]

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