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Scott Kazmir of old makes timely appearance for Tampa Bay Rays

ST. PETERSBURG— They sat behind home plate, about a dozen rows deep. They came with briefcases, clipboards, radar guns and doubts. They'd heard Scott Kazmir had lost some of his edge. They'd heard he might be available in trade.

So these scouts came on Tuesday night to see what had become of a pitcher who once was one of the best left-handers in the game. And by the time they left, they had to be wondering if this trade talk was all a cruel hoax.

This was the Kazmir of old. Maybe not as dominating as the first half of 2006. Maybe not as electric as the first half of 2008. Still, it was probably the best Kazmir has looked since returning from the All-Star Game last summer.

For the first time since June 6, 2008 — a span of 40 starts, including the postseason — Kazmir pitched into the eighth inning Tuesday night. He was in control. He was efficient. He held the best offense in the majors to one run in seven innings.

And when it was all over, he couldn't help wondering whether this was the end of the line for him in Tampa Bay.

"When I woke up today, I felt that. I felt maybe this could be my last start," Kazmir said. "It was kind of tough to swallow going out there getting ready for the game, wondering if this was going to be my last game here. A lot of emotions going on out there.

"I always go out there a good 45 minutes before the game to get ready. While I was stretching in centerfield I took the time to stop and look around and kind of soak it in, because you never know."

So should this one start make a difference? Should you trust what you saw on Tuesday night, or what you have watched since April? In other words, would you still have Kazmir on the block with the non-waiver trade deadline around 48 hours away?

The Rays themselves have not acknowledged they have been shopping Kazmir around, but it has been talked about a little too much to simply dismiss. The Rangers are supposed to have interest. The Mets have reportedly been contacted.

And, even without the unconfirmed reports, the possibility of a trade makes too much sense to ignore. Kazmir is guaranteed $22.5 million over the next two seasons, and his recent performances have not matched his salary.

But there is the price you might pay in actual dollars and the price you could pay in seller's remorse. The fact is, from 2005-08 Kazmir was one of the game's top left-handed pitchers. He is 25, and a two-time All-Star.

So the question becomes:

Was this a slump brought on by mechanical problems, or a new reality because of physical issues?

Tuesday night should go a long way toward suggesting that Kazmir's talent has not abandoned him. It's not that he was dominating — he was greatly helped by fine catches by all three outfielders and a spectacular play by shortstop Jason Bartlett — but he was as smooth and effective as we have seen in a long time.

"That's as good of a game as I've seen out of him, I would say, in maybe a year," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "He's won for us, and he's pitched well. But that was more the way you envision him, what you see in your mind's eye with Kaz. This is what he can look like on a consistent basis."

No one understands that better than Kazmir. He recalls the buzz he created at Tropicana Field back when the team still had a Devil of a name and reputation. He knows what it's like to put together one glorious outing after another.

You have to understand, Kazmir has a little bit of an edge to him. Like most elite athletes, he has complete faith in his abilities and he takes slights personally, even if he does not always let it show.

So there was something personal about Tuesday night's game. The trade rumors had wounded him maybe a little more than he had shown.

"Yeah, it hurts. Of course it does," Kazmir said. "But at the same time you have to understand what's going on. We're in a pennant race and they need me to go out and give them quality starts every time. But it's tough to hear that. Especially when you've been through the hard times and, now that we're having good times, there are rumors you're being traded. It's tough.

"There was a little fire in me tonight because I know I'm way better than what I've been doing out there. I'm way better than that. It's been a tough season. Just know that I'm never going to give up. I know what I'm capable of doing and I'm on the path to being back there."

And if Tuesday night is any indication, that path will remain in Tampa Bay. Maddon said before the game that he did not expect to lose Kazmir in a trade, and his opinion had not changed hours later.

So would it be a shock if Kazmir is not still a Ray in a few days?

"Yes," Maddon said. "It would be a shock."

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

Scott Kazmir of old makes timely appearance for Tampa Bay Rays 07/28/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, July 29, 2009 11:28am]
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