CLEVELAND: Surprising? The Indians?
What was more predictable than the Tribe leading the American League in home runs after six weeks of the season? And who didn’t expect Zach McAllister to rank 14th among AL starters with a 2.63 ERA?
Was there anyone who did not foresee that Scott Kazmir would strike out 10 and walk none in beating the Oakland Athletics 9-2 Thursday afternoon at Progressive Field?
Speaking of sure things, was any achievement more certain than the Indians sweeping a four-game series from the A’s after losing eight of 10 to them last year?
Kazmir (2-1, 4.87 ERA) made his fourth start of the season and turned in his best performance, giving up one run, five hits, no walks, and striking out 10 in six innings. During one stretch between the first and sixth innings, he retired 15 of 17 batters, eight on strikeouts.
“He seemed to locate the ball well,” A’s shortstop Adam Rosales said. “He had a good sequence of pitches, and he kept the ball down.”
Kazmir looked like a pitcher with a clue early in spring training.
“What we saw in spring training from the first day was that he could pitch with his stuff at the major-league level,” Indians manager Terry Francona said. “Today, he attacked with his fastball, and he had a lot of depth on his breaking ball with a good change-up.”
The velocity and the quality of pitches Kazmir showed off during exhibition season seem like a distant memory. His spring training fastball usually traveled to the plate at 90-92 mph. On Wednesday, he occasionally mixed in some 95- and 96-mph fastballs.
“He was mad after he gave up the home run,” Francona said of Kazmir’s gun readings, following Josh Donaldson’s homer in the sixth.
But it was more than a flash of emotion that raised the speed of his Kazmir’s fastball.
“The hope is that the more he has pitched, he’s gotten stronger,” Francona said. “That would be real exciting.”
Kazmir had a different explanation.
“My delivery is just getting tighter and tighter,” he said. “It’s not there yet, but I’m making strides.”
Kazmir has given up three runs, one walk and struck out 17 in 12 innings in his past two starts.
In each of Kazmir’s starts, he has shown improvement from the previous one.
“I think he’s had time to figure himself out,” Francona said. “He told me, ‘I grew up.’ He seems to be at peace with himself, and he’s enjoying it.”
Something about Kazmir seems to bring out the best in the Indians’ offense. The Tribe has scored a total of 35 runs in three of his starts; in his only loss, the attack scored two runs.
“Whatever it is, I hope I keep doing it,” Kazmir said. “But I don’t know what it is yet.”
Kazmir is a long way from wrapping up a comeback player of the year award, but he is doing everything he can to qualify.
For one thing, he has something to come back from. The only pitching he did last year was for Sugar Land, Texas, an independent league team, then he tried to polish his skills in the Puerto Rican winter league.
In 2011, when a minor leg injury precipitated his decline, Kazmir made one appearance for the Los Angeles Angels and five at Triple-A. As Kazmir tells it, his mechanics became so out of sync, he couldn’t do anything properly.
“I had a leg injury and started compensating for that,” Kazmir said. “After a while, I couldn’t throw a strike; there was nothing I was able to control. Once I felt better, I didn’t know how to use my legs. When it gets that bad, you have to start from square one.”
But Kazmir wasn’t a lost soul who needed a squadron of pitching coaches to resuscitate his delivery. He knew what to do.
“My concern was how long it would take,” said Kazmir, who said he never doubted himself. “Of course, it goes through my mind how far I came in a short time. But it didn’t surprise me once I got going.”
Kazmir thinks he can be better. Francona remembers when he was.
“[David] Ortiz didn’t argue about getting a day off against that Kazmir,” said Francona, who is hoping Kazmir can return to his glory years as a dominating left-hander.
Kazmir likes where his career is headed, but he knows there’s always room for improvement.
“I just feel comfortable,” he said. “And I’m confident.”
Sheldon Ocker can be reached at email@example.com. Read the Indians blog at http://www.ohio.com/indians. Follow him on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/SheldonOckerABJ and on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/sports.abj.