CLEVELAND — There's a familiar look and feel to Scott Kazmir these days.
The smile and swagger are back, as is the mid 90s fastball. The two-time All-Star left-hander is showing glimpses of why he was once the cornerstone of the Rays' rotation.
"Everything is coming together," said Kazmir, who now pitches for the Indians.
Considering what Kazmir, 29, has been through, you'd think he'd show a little more age on his baby face, maybe a tint of gray in his brown hair. Kazmir's stunning and humbling fall, after all, led him to drop out of the majors altogether, and doubts crept into his mind as to whether he'd return.
A mechanical mess and "completely out of synch," Kazmir felt like he was pitching underwater.
But he has come up for air, regaining his form through stops in the independent league and winter ball, and enjoying a career rejuvenation with the Indians. Kazmir won't face the Rays this weekend — he wishes he was — but he believes what they'd notice is an improved version from the one they traded to Anaheim in August 2009.
"I think I'm way better, just from the fact how tight my delivery is now," Kazmir said. "I'm developing more pitches and attacking the strike zone for the most part. There's some improvement (to be made) with some of my pitches, especially my breaking ball. Once I get that down, I feel like I'll be more of a complete pitcher than I was with the Rays."
Kazmir isn't a finished product, having gone 3-2 with a 5.13 ERA in eight starts. It's a challenge for his body to bounce back every five days after essentially two years off. But Kazmir, who made the rotation out of spring training after signing a minor-league deal, is coming off his best outing of the season Thursday against the Reds. He allowed just one run in seven innings, his longest start since May 22, 2010.
"I'm happy for him," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "With us, back in the day, man, this was one of the best young left-handed pitchers in all of baseball, not just the American League. … It's not that long ago, and then there was kind of a tough moment for him, and now he's rebounding and I think it's pretty cool."
Kazmir is still proud he was a big part of the Rays' transformation from the Devil Rays days. He was the one to boldly predict in spring training 2008 they'd make the playoffs, and they did, appearing in their first World Series. But with Tampa Bay still owing Kazmir around $20 million, they shipped him to the Angels in August 2009 for a package that included infielder Sean Rodriguez and lefty Alex Torres.
Kazmir flopped in Anaheim, however, going 9-15 with a 5.94 ERA in 2010. He pitched just 1 1/3 big-league innings in 2011, giving up five runs. And then he posted a 17.02 ERA in five starts for Triple-A Salt Lake before his release.
Kazmir said he went back to "square one," taking the time while pitching for the Independent League's Sugarland Skeeters to rebuild his mechanics and confidence. In the last few starts, everything started to click, his fastball jumping 3-4 mph, and his command improving. That carried over into winter ball in Puerto Rico, where Kazmir was managed by Indians Double-A skipper Edwin Rodriguez.
That connection opened the line of communication with the Indians, one of several teams interested, and when new manager Terry Francona called Kazmir about competing for a spot, he said it was a "no-brainer."
Even if Kazmir had fleeting doubts, he never thought his career was over.
"It creeps up in your head for sure, as long as I've been out," Kazmir said. "But I was confident that I was going to come back just by how my arm felt. I felt like everything was still there."