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Former Tampa Bay Rays ace Scott Kazmir looks to his past to rebuild his career

ST. PETERSBURG — Where do you begin to rebuild a career?

Practicing your delivery surrounded by a roomful of mirrors in a yoga studio in New York? Or driving to a high school field in Monmouth, N.J., to throw a bullpen session for a pitching coach you haven't worked with in five years?

Do you wear an iPod with the music blaring so you get the sense of rhythm as you repeat the beginning of your leg kick over and over? Or do you practice fielding grounders and throwing to first so you remember an arm motion that was natural and instinctive?

Perhaps, if you are Scott Kazmir, you just go back to the beginning.

Back to the days when you were the only star in the room. When you were the grandest hope on a team learning to crawl. That is what Saturday night was about for Kazmir. Not the strikeouts. Not the no-decision. Just recapturing a feeling that was lost.

He's not quite there yet. The fastball does not have the same pop, and the slider is still coming around. But the five innings Kazmir threw against the Marlins on Saturday were among the best we've seen from him this season.

Do you recall that at 22, Kazmir was an opening day starter? The youngest in the big leagues since Doc Gooden 20 years earlier. Did you remember that, by 24, he was a two-time All-Star? Fourth all time with 9.58 strikeouts per nine innings among pitchers with at least 125 starts.

And this same pitcher, at age 25, was struggling to hold on to his job in Tampa Bay's rotation.

"You know, you feel like you're at the point of your career where you're going to get some notoriety. And then you finally reach the World Series and you're not 100 percent. It was frustrating," Kazmir said. "You pay your dues and have a chance to show the world what you can do, and then you're fighting yourself. That killed me. It killed me.

"We've got new fans now that have no idea how I can pitch. They think I'm an 89-90 mph guy with a horse(bleep) slider. It's frustrating getting booed off the mound. That had never happened to me before. By your own fans? Your hometown fans? Anybody who says that doesn't bother them is lying."

It has been a long time since things were right for Kazmir. At this point, just about a year.

Coming into his start against the Marlins, Kazmir had gone 9-9 with a 5.56 ERA in the previous 12 months. That's bad, but it's even worse when you consider his career numbers were 42-32 with a 3.53 ERA before that.

There is no shortage of theories and explanations for his decline. You start with poor control. Which is caused by a lack of command on his fastball. Which is caused by poor mechanics. Which is caused by overstriding and opening up with his right foot. Which is caused by a lack of rhythm in his delivery. Which is caused by … you get the idea.

The bottom line is Kazmir had gotten lost on the mound. His comfort level was shot, and his confidence followed. And the more he thought about it, the worse things got. He tweaked his delivery to the point where it felt unrecognizable to him.

It all probably stems from the elbow inflammation Kazmir had in the spring of 2008. It's true he came back from that scare with a brilliant start last season, but Kazmir was slowly getting into poor habits.

Worried about his elbow and forearm, he stopped his long toss sessions in the outfield between starts. He also stopped throwing his slider as much, depending more on the changeup. Once opponents realized this, he began getting hit harder.

And a guy who seemed so mature on the mound at 21 was now beginning to look like a head case.

When Kazmir was put on the disabled list last month, he took the opportunity to fly to New York and get reacquainted with former Mets pitching coach Rick Peterson. Their history together was brief — some work in spring training in 2004 before he was traded to the Rays — but Kazmir said he wanted to return to some of the routines he had earlier in his career.

So they did the work in the yoga studio, and they put in some time on the high school field in Jersey. Mostly, Kazmir tried clearing his head and finding the groove that had abandoned him.

His velocity was not all the way back (he was 90-93 mph instead of 94-96), but Kazmir did have much better control Saturday than we've seen lately, and every one of his five strikeouts came on offspeed pitches. He also seemed to grow stronger as the game went on.

"I thought he had very good fastball command. I thought it was a very impressive debut," manager Joe Maddon said. "I just thought he had a better feeling if he needed to throw a strike he could, and in the past I don't know that he necessarily felt that way."

All in all, it was a promising start.

Or maybe an anticipated return.

John Romano can be reached at romano@sptimes.com.

Former Tampa Bay Rays ace Scott Kazmir looks to his past to rebuild his career 06/28/09 [Last modified: Sunday, June 28, 2009 12:10am]

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