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Kazmir fills role as Rays had expected

Scott Kazmir pitched six innings of one-hit ball Thursday against the Yankees, perhaps his best performance all season.

JAMES BORCHUCK | Times

Scott Kazmir pitched six innings of one-hit ball Thursday against the Yankees, perhaps his best performance all season.

ST. PETERSBURG — This is what an ace does:

He makes you forget. Forget that the third baseman and leftfielder are still on the disabled list. Forget Tuesday's base­running blunder and Wednesday's fielding miscues.

This is what an ace does:

He helps you remember. Remember that everyone is still chasing you. Remember that this is the same team that went nearly two months without losing a series.

This is what an ace does:

He pitches like Scott Kazmir.

There is no other position like a starting pitcher in baseball. It is as close as you can get to a player singlehandedly winning in a team sport. And that makes an ace practically irreplaceable.

In a single night, the Rays went from a team supposedly slipping to the same understated confidence that has marked much of the season. And Kazmir's six-inning, one-hit performance started it all.

"It's all about pitching. All about pitching," manager Joe Maddon said. "The teams that pitch better this time of the year, win. Period. When you get to the playoffs, you play these short series, it's all about pitching."

You can worry about the delay in Evan Longoria's return. You can fret about the hit-and-miss nature of the offense. But the key to Tampa Bay's September — and the possibility of October — remains the same.

The Rays are dependent on starting pitching. It is what has set them apart from the rest of the division. Tampa Bay has used the same five starters virtually the entire season, and their 3.88 ERA is the best in the American League. The consistency of those starters has kept the Rays from extended slumps.

Andy Sonnanstine and Edwin Jackson have been better than anyone expected. So good, in fact, that Joe Maddon says David Price will not take their place in the rotation no matter how he finishes in Triple-A.

But, should the playoffs arrive, Jackson and Sonnanstine would take a back seat. They probably would be moved to the bullpen or even deactivated for the shortened division series.

Which means the responsibility shifts heavily toward Kazmir, James Shields and Matt Garza. All three have the ability to be the No. 1 starter for a lot of teams, and all three have to pitch that way this month.

"Getting him kind of looking the way he's supposed to look is very encouraging," Maddon said.

The season has felt like a struggle for Kazmir. As if he has been fighting to find himself.

And, at times, that perception has definitely been the reality. Kazmir's command of his fastball has been spotty for several months, and it has resulted in high pitch counts and too many five-inning performances.

But consider where Kazmir is this morning:

His 2.99 ERA is fifth-best among AL starters, though he is still six innings shy of officially qualifying for the ERA title. The Rays are 17-6 in his starts, and he moved into the top 10 in the league in strikeouts Thursday night.

"Everybody is being very critical of him, but the ERA is under 3.00," Maddon said. "The strikeouts are very high. The walk ratio is not that awful. He just runs a lot of deep counts."

He is still not perfect. The pitch count continues to be a problem, and Kazmir is fortunate the Rays bullpen has been among the league's most deep and productive units.

But there are signs it is getting better. Kazmir has thrown 111/3 consecutive shutout innings in his past two starts. After a 4.13 ERA in July and a 4.02 in August, he might be turning a corner at exactly the right time.

"It feels like I've been fighting myself the entire year. I just haven't gotten in the groove that I want to be in," Kazmir said. "Slowly, it's getting a lot more comfortable for me."

For the longest time, he has been the inconsequential ace. Too many terrific performances misplaced near the bottom of the AL East standings.

You want clutch numbers down the stretch? Kazmir is 7-3 with a 2.56 ERA in 16 career appearances in September. It's just that, before Thursday night, it has never really mattered.

So now, Kazmir finally has a chance to pitch on the biggest stages during baseball's biggest month. In some ways, his elbow problems in March might have been a blessing. He missed the first month of the regular season, which means he is still relatively fresh in the final month.

"I'm trying not to think too much about what I have to change and what I have to improve," Kazmir said. "I just need to go out there and trust myself."

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

Kazmir fills role as Rays had expected 09/04/08 [Last modified: Monday, September 8, 2008 11:34am]
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