Pittsburgh Pirates

Rays looking out for lefties

PORT CHARLOTTE — Standing in front of an empty locker inside the Tampa Bay Rays’ clubhouse Monday afternoon, Scott Kazmir went through the motion of throwing a baseball, pushing his left arm forward and extending it as far as it could go.

He couldn’t do that last season.

“It kind of felt like everything was tight,” he said. “I wasn’t able to get out there and get extended.”

Kazmir’s inability to extend his arm meant he couldn’t throw his slider properly, and without his slider, Kazmir was, well, not Kazmir.

His numbers looked fine: 12-8 with a 3.49 ERA and a spot on the American League All-Star team despite missing the first month of the season because of a strained left elbow. It was his second-highest win total of his four full seasons in the big leagues, and his ERA was below his career average.

But the numbers don’t tell the full story of Kazmir’s 2008 season.

Yes, he was 5-1 with a 1.22 ERA in his first six starts of the season. But his ERA was a run higher in 14 starts after the All-Star break when his average start lasted one out into the sixth inning.

A high pitch count was usually the problem, and that was a result of hitters fouling off an unusually high number of pitches when Kazmir was on the mound.

A good slider cuts down on foul balls, but Kazmir didn’t have his good slider.

“It was kind of me not having extension,” Kazmir said. “I couldn’t get out there, and that type of pitch you need to finish, kind of run out of arm, I guess you can say. It felt like I was cutting everything off. You can’t really throw a slider that way. When you throw a slider, you want to get all the way out there.”

There was nothing wrong with Kazmir’s slider in 2007 when he won 13 games and struck out an American League-best 239 batters.

But the elbow strain suffered while warming up for an intrasquad game the following February kept Kazmir on the disabled list for two months. He didn’t throw a slider during any rehab starts and never had a feel for it once he returned to the Rays.

“You got to feel it when you’re actually doing something,” Rays manager Joe Maddon said. “I believe when a guy is not able to do something, the feeling evades him for whatever reason.”

Kazmir made his spring training debut Monday against the visiting Twins, allowing one run in two innings. He allowed three hits and struck out one. He threw 33 pitches — 24 in the second inning when he said he was working on a few things.

Four of those pitches were sliders, and Kazmir was pleased with each.

“It’s looking good,” he said. “It looks like I’m getting a lot of bite, a lot of late action.”

Kazmir was once the ace of the Rays’ staff, but that title has been passed on to James Shields, who will start the season opener April 6 in Boston.

Maddon is not into titles, so he’s not ready to call Shields his ace, even though the rest of the Rays call Shields “Big Game James.”

The reason Kazmir slid to No.2 in the rotation is because Maddon wants to break up the two right-handers, Shields and Matt Garza (No. 3), with a lefty. And, also, because Shields and Garza are able to pitch deep into games, meaning the bullpen should be rested on days when Kazmir pitches and should get a rest when Garza takes his turn.

Of course, if Kazmir can work deep into games if he can keep his pitch count down. Finding his old slider will help.

“If the slider gets back to where it has been, I think it takes the pressure off his fastball,” Maddon said. “I think he gets more swing (and misses) because of that. It’s all part of that equation of pitching deep into games.”

It is still early in spring. But from his bullpen sessions and two innings against the Twins, Kazmir thinks he has found his old friend.

“I think it’s going to be there,” he said. “It’s more of me getting command of my fastball, and that’s something everyone works on in spring is the command of your fastball. I think once I have that, I’ll be able to throw the slider right off that and not have to worry about it.”