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Scott Kazmir is back (so why did so few of us see it coming?)

By Danny Knobler | Baseball Insider

PHILADELPHIA -- Joe Klein says he tried to tell people about Scott Kazmir.

"You could see it coming," Klein said this week.

He could, so why couldn't we? He could, so why couldn't all the major-league teams that passed on the chance to give Kazmir a shot at a comeback?

You wonder that now. You wonder it even after Kazmir gave up four runs in five-plus innings Tuesday night in the Indians' 6-2 loss to the Phillies. You wonder it, because plenty of teams are already proving that it's tough to find major-league quality starting pitchers and Kazmir is already well on the way to proving that he once again qualifies as a quality major-league pitcher.

Forget the 5.33 ERA, and just watch. Watch the fastball that lit up a radar gun at 96 mph in an impressive win over the A's last week and topped out at 95 mph Tuesday night. Watch the slider and the changeup. Watch the command (five walks, 24 strikeouts in his last four starts). Watch the delivery that has Kazmir and the Indians convinced that he's not only headed back to the highs he once reached as a kid with the Rays (where he led the American League in strikeouts at age 23), but has a chance to be even better than he was then.

And remember, Kazmir is still just 29 years old.

"It's the old Kazmir, but I don't want to even say old," teammate Jason Giambi said. "This is the new and improved Kazmir."

And Giambi was 3 for 20 with eight strikeouts against the old Kazmir, so he knows how good that Kazmir was.

The old Kazmir went away long ago. He got hurt, and he got so messed up that there were times his fastball was being clocked not in the low 90s, but in the low 80s.

"It was almost like I was throwing underwater," Kazmir said this spring.

It was so bad that he ended up with a 17.02 ERA in five starts for the Angels' Triple-A Salt Lake team in 2011, so bad that he ended up pitching for the Sugar Land Skeeters in the Atlantic League last year.

Klein, the former major-league general manager who is executive director of the Atlantic League, saw him there, and saw through the 5.34 ERA Kazmir had for the Skeeters.

"I told teams, 'Kazmir is the guy you want,'" Klein said.

It sure looks that way now. Even Tuesday's loss didn't feel like much of a setback, in part because of how far Kazmir has come, and in part because what went wrong felt so fixable.

"This stuff seems so minor," Kazmir said.

He believes in himself again, enough so that when the Indians were thrilled to see velocities of 91 or 92 mph in spring training, Kazmir confidently told them that he would throw even harder as the year went on.

"You know what, it happened a lot sooner than I expected," Indians pitching coach Mickey Callaway said.

Callaway thinks there are a lot of similarities between the Kazmir the Indians are seeing now and the one who succeeded at a young age with the Rays, but manager sees significant differences.

So does Kazmir, who said, "I feel like I'm a complete different person, even from by best years."

He sees it in a delivery that is more fluid, but also in his reaction to a start like Tuesday's.

"I'll look at some film and be able to make adjustments, rather than look at it and watch myself pitch," Kazmir said.

He talks about having a changeup and a curveball as useable pitches now.

"If feels like I have more in the toolbox," he said.

It feels like Kazmir is on the way back, and it feels like maybe we'll all be seeing what Joe Klein saw last year.

It's easy to understand why so many were skeptical. Most pitchers who go down the road Kazmir traveled never do make it back. Most pitchers who are gone from the big leagues as long as Kazmir was gone are never heard from again.

In the 32 months between Kazmir's final win for the Angels in 2010 and his first win for the Indians this month, Justin Verlander won 45 times and the Giants won two World Series.

Scott Kazmir pitched in a World Series once (in this very stadium). He pitched in two All-Star Games.

Then he went away, and now he's come back.

"It's a great story," teammate Ryan Raburn said. It is. Too bad so few of us could see it coming.

 
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