BOSTON — Throughout his struggles this season, left-hander Scott Kazmir has talked, at different times, about fighting himself, not trusting his stuff and having issues with mechanics.
But to pitching coach Jim Hickey, what the All-Star's second-half scuffles come down to is relatively simple:
Kazmir's first inning, specifically his fastball command.
When Kazmir is comfortable locating his fastball and can get through the first couple of innings, he says he gains confidence and is effective. When he doesn't, and throws 25-plus pitches in the first, he tries to make up for the lack of efficiency by trying to get hitters out with one pitch, and it snowballs.
In eight of his past nine starts, Kazmir has thrown 20 or more first-inning pitches; he has won just three of them.
"If we could just get him through those first couple innings and have him have a somewhat normal pattern of number of pitches and get some nice results, I think he can really take off," manager Joe Maddon said. "That's all he needs, is a couple of good moments to get his confidence back."
Hickey feels Kazmir is not that far off. In Kazmir's last outing, when he threw 38 pitches in the first inning in Game 2 against the Red Sox, it "was as well as he has thrown the ball in his last five or six or seven first innings," Hickey said.
Kazmir got two quick outs on 10 pitches, walked David Ortiz, and Kevin Youkilis hit a misplaced slider for a single.
"It felt like my command was there, everything was good until right when I ended up walking Big Papi," Kazmir said. "It was just frustrating, because I felt like I second-guessed myself right after I threw a slider, maybe I should have challenged him."
What makes Kazmir's fastball command even more important is that he hasn't always felt comfortable this season with his slider, arguably his best pitch.
"I think that's been the pitch that has probably been the difference between dominant performances and not," Hickey said. "Is the ability to throw that slider and throw it really, really well. … But he can pitch without it, too."
With Kazmir's start sandwiched between off days, Hickey said he doesn't have to worry about being too "efficient," since the bullpen is rested.
"Obviously everyone knows what he's capable of doing; he can run out there and throw a shutout" today, Hickey said. "This is an opportunity for him to basically erase any bad memories of any portion of the season. He can go ahead and write his ticket on the national stage. And I think I'd be very surprised if he didn't pitch really well."
Joe Smith can be reached at email@example.com.