MINNEAPOLIS -- The last time Oakland A’s pitcher Scott Kazmir was in the All-Star Game, he earned the win in the 2008 edition at the old Yankee Stadium in New York. His Tampa Bay Rays went on to their first World Series appearance.
Kazmir finished the first half of the season with an 11-3 record, a 2.38 ERA and an 8.3 K/9 in 117.1 innings pitched. He hasn’t been this good since the last time he donned the green way back in 2007 when he lead the American League in strikeouts with 239.
“I think might be the green,” Kazmir said. “The color suits me. It’s my high school colors, old [Tampa Bay] Devil Ray colors; it just turns back the clock for me. It’s all about the green.”
Tuesday’s MLB All-Star Game will be the third of his career and even after organizing the chartered flight and ground transportation for the other six Athletic All-Stars, the 30-year-old baby-faced ace is still shocked on how he got here in the first place.
"I don't know,” Kazmir said. “How did I get here? How did I become the responsible one overnight?”
This wasn’t an overnight phenomenon. This was a seven year journey that consisted of falling completely off the top of the mountain, figuring out why and having to climb all the way back up.
As Kazmir and his Rays were ascending to the World Series in 2008, the seeds of his downfall was planted in the form of arm and groin strains. He made 27 starts along with five postseason starts, but compensating for those minor muscle strains caused a gradual loss of his mechanics that sent him to Anaheim and spiraling down to baseball’s abyss.
"Honestly, I think a lot of people thought it was mental when it had nothing to do with that," Kazmir said. "It was something where I just physically couldn't get there. I couldn't get to a point where I felt comfortable."
When Kazmir hit rock bottom and out of baseball at such a young age, it was unbearable for him. At the age where a chunk of Major Leaguers usually begin their careers, his career – one filled with promise, fulfillment and unexplainable heartbreak – seemed over.
"It was tough," he said. "It was a frustrating time. I'm in my back yard throwing bullpens. I couldn't even watch major-league games. I'd see one on TV and I'd turn it real quick. It was tough. I knew that I still had it in me. I just had to keep working. It was definitely some trying times during all that."
Even when he puts what he felt at the time of his release from the Los Angeles Angels was his best stuff, the radar gun read 84 MPH. About over a year and a half was spent trying to figure out what went wrong and what the solution was.
Dominican winter ball failed miserably for Kazmir but the epiphany the brought him back to reincorporating his lower body in his pitches led him to finally make real strides towards a comeback. And independent ball was the perfect place for Kazmir to test out his newfound solution.
“I honestly think being in independent ball and having a little bit of that comfort, being off the radar, to be able to get my feet wet again, I think that helped me out a lot,” he said.
The Sugar Land Skeeters, located right by Kazmir’s hometown of Houston, Texas, has a history of MLB presence, including former MLB third baseman Gary Gaetti, who manages the Skeeters and invited Kazmir to join the team.
“[Gaetti] said: ‘Just come out here. You can get your work in. It’s not like you’re going to be with an affiliate to where you give up a couple runs in the first inning, you have a high pitch count and you’re out of there and the next thing you know, we start changing things with your delivery,’” Kazmir said.
It also helps that Kazmir associated himself with the right people during his comeback. Kazmir got to work on his comeback with pitching legend Roger Clemens in 2012. He signed with Terry Francona and the Cleveland Indians in 2013 and finished the season with a 2.57 ERA and a 13.8 K/9 in September to propel the Tribe to the playoffs. Now he's an All-Star with the A's, who not only has the best record in baseball, but also has the same qualities that reminds Kazmir to Joe Madden’s Rays.
“You get the right mix of veteran guys in there to keep everything in good chemistry, it’s like Madden,” Kazmir said. “It is exactly like Madden. [A’s manager Bob Melvin] reminded me a lot of Madden, just how easy going he is.”
Pitching in the 85th MLB All-Star Game symbolizes a true return to form for Kazmir, but the journey back will only be complete with a return to the World Series.