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Which Scott Kazmir will Rays get in the playoffs?

Scott Kazmir has not gone more than six innings in any of his last 12 starts.

BRIAN CASSELLA | Times

Scott Kazmir has not gone more than six innings in any of his last 12 starts.

DETROIT — Two starts. Two chances to clinch. Two completely different sides of Scott Kazmir.

It is, in essence, the story of his season. And could, potentially, be the story of the postseason.

Five days earlier, with Tampa Bay in line to clinch its first playoff berth, Kazmir threw six shutout innings in a victory at home against the Twins. On Thursday, with the Rays in line to clinch the American League East, Kazmir gave up four home runs in five innings in a 7-5 loss to the Tigers.

"For me, personally, it's been a disappointing season," Kazmir said.

The question is whether it will get better, or worse, next week. And the fear is that no one has a clue.

You see, when he is on, Kazmir is among the very best pitchers in baseball. He can be brilliant. He can be dominating. He can be as good as any left-hander not named CC Sabathia.

And when he is not comfortable with his mechanics, Kazmir can be a study in frustration. He still throws hard, he still has presence, but he labors to get pitches in the right location and is constantly pitching from behind.

This is a pitcher who went 6-0 with an 0.87 ERA in six consecutive starts this season. He followed that by going 1-4 with a 4.97 ERA in his next seven.

The problem is, every time Kazmir thinks he has turned a corner, he ends up right back in the same place. Kazmir said the problem stems from not getting his front leg planted correctly, which throws off the rest of his delivery.

"It just seems like I'm thinking about my mechanics all the time, thinking about my delivery," Kazmir said. "I'll throw a pitch, and I'm like, 'Damn, that's it. That's where I want to be with my delivery.' Then I try to do something extra with the next pitch, and it doesn't turn out."

For a team that relies on pitching more than most, Kazmir's inconsistency is a little disconcerting going into the playoffs. The Rays have learned to deal with the high pitch counts that keep Kazmir from pitching deep into games. He has not gone more than six innings in any of his last 12 starts.

So the Rays can live with that. Their bullpen is strong enough and deep enough to finish the job if Kazmir hands over a lead.

What Tampa Bay cannot afford is to have Kazmir blow up inexplicably in early innings. Not against good teams. And not in the postseason. He did it against Boston on Sept. 15 and on Thursday.

"I don't have a good answer," manager Joe Maddon said of Thursday's start. "I thought his velocity was good. But overall, his command of the fastball was not there. I don't know why."

The beating of Kazmir began when Ramon Santiago led off the afternoon with a home run. Several hours later, it continued without pause in the Tampa Bay clubhouse.

For that's where the would-be Rays ace stood in front of his locker and took himself to task for this season that has fallen short of expectations.

By now, Kazmir, 24, expected to be among the game's elite. He had visions of flirting with a 20-win season. A run at the Cy Young Award was probably in the back of his mind.

And though it's true his ERA (3.49) is among the best in the AL and his strikeout rate per nine innings (9.80) is exceptional, the 12-8 record is a disappointment considering Tampa Bay's success.

"It's just me getting behind hitters, having to throw my fastball and not having my location," he said. "It's just hurt me all year.

"This is not the way I would want to finish a season and go into the postseason. At the same time, my arm feels good. You just have to forget about what happened and concentrate on what's ahead. And that's the playoffs, that's October."

That's what the Rays are looking forward to next week.

It would just be nice to have a better idea of what they are going to get.

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

Which Scott Kazmir will Rays get in the playoffs? 09/25/08 [Last modified: Sunday, September 28, 2008 1:42pm]
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