ST. PETERSBURG — Even with the division lead dwindling, even then, he was the pitcher worth trusting. Even with the most important game of the year on the line, especially then, he was the player who carried the hope.
After all, Scott Kazmir is supposed to be the ace, isn't he? He has been on a roll, hasn't he? He is the guy with the live arm, the guy with the great stuff, the guy with the brilliant future.
In a game of this magnitude, in a showdown for first place against the vaunted Boston Red Sox, who else would you want on the mound?
And then, suddenly and savagely, it was over.
Kaz was crushed. Kaz was clobbered. Kaz was clubbed.
The disappointment wasn't simply that Kazmir lost a crucial game Monday night. It was the merciless, relentless nature of it. The Red Sox bullied Kazmir as if he were a high school pitcher throwing batting practice.
It was over before the popcorn was ready. It was over before the fans could remind each other how big the game was. It was over by the time Lightning coach Barry Melrose reached the grandstand; come to think of it, the Rays would have been better off if they had left Melrose in the game.
This was Kazmir? This was an ace?
Or was it?
From the way Kazmir talked, that might not have been him at all. If someone finds one of the four home run balls he surrendered, perhaps they can check it for fingerprints.
"I really feel like that wasn't me, that wasn't my game out there," Kazmir said. "Even in the bullpen, I wasn't hitting my spots. I didn't feel comfortable with my body. It wasn't responding to me."
Kazmir said that he felt "jetlagged" and "flat" and "out of synch."
Just a guess, but given the importance of the game, perhaps you would have preferred "dominant" or "overpowering" or "victorious."
Instead, Kazmir struggled to get the ball over the plate, and when he did, it was a battle to keep it inside the park. And if you could argue that this was the biggest game in the history of the franchise, then it was also the biggest letdown.
How bad was it?
• Kazmir's first pitch flew wildly to the screen. The technical term for it is "a warning shot."
• It took Kazmir 10 pitches to throw his first strike. On the 11th, David Ortiz became the first left-handed batter to hit a home run off Kazmir in more than a year.
• Kazmir recorded nine outs. He also gave up nine earned runs.
• For the first time as a pro, Kazmir allowed four home runs.
• Kazmir gave up five earned runs in the month of May. He also gave up five earned runs in the fourth inning.
• In a third of a game, Kazmir surrendered six hits, four home runs, four walks, a hit batter and failed to cover first base. When he is 90 years old, if he wakes up screaming in the night, this will be the pitching line that will cause it.
"I really expected more out of Kaz tonight," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "His command wasn't very good, and when he threw it over the plate, they hit it very hard and far."
In the end, the lasting image of Kazmir's night was as he stood on the mound, looking up at the C-ring of the catwalks for a baseball that Jason Bay had lost up there.
Frankly, if the Rays don't start playing better quickly, that may be the viewpoint of the entire team.
As it is, the Rays are in a virtual tie for the AL East lead. True, they are still percentage points ahead of the Red Sox, but does it feel like a lead to anyone else? Not when you consider the team's three-game losing streak in which they have allowed 27 runs. Not when you consider that the Rays led the Red Sox by 5½ games on Sept. 1.
Kazmir was the pitcher who was supposed to stop these kinds of streaks, remember?
Oh, Kazmir has had a patchy year, and he doesn't pitch deep enough into games to be considered a true ace, and no one thinks his victory total approaches his ability. Still, Kazmir had won three straight, and the Rays had won eight of his past nine starts. In his previous four starts after a loss, Kazmir had been 3-0 with a 1.44 era.
Considering that, Monday's start was especially disappointing. A big-game pitcher gives his team a chance. Kazmir didn't.
For the record, Kaz said he was not overhyped and was not overthrowing. It was, he kept saying, just an off night.
"For me, it feels like I just have to go out there and take it out on the next team I have to face," Kazmir said. "You have a chip on your shoulder and you want to go out there and erase what happened."
As of now, the Rays can't stand many more of those. There are 13 games left, and the marathon has turned into a sprint.
Funny, but you would think that a first-place tie would feel closer than this, wouldn't you?