By Stephanie Storm
and Marla Ridenour
Beacon Journal sports writers
At 10:45 a.m. Sunday, Nick Swisher, Mike Aviles and Scott Kazmir walked through a front entrance at Target Field in Minneapolis after taking the Indians’ late bus for the final game of the regular season.
It was before the gates opened for Minnesota Twins fans, so Aviles and Swisher breezed in and headed through the empty concourse to the clubhouse downstairs. But a security worker stopped Kazmir and asked to check his bag.
“Hey, man, just tell them you’re the lefty that dominated yesterday,” Aviles yelled to Kazmir.
In his final start of the regular season Saturday, Kazmir stuck out 11 Twins over six innings in a 5-1 Tribe victory. But Kazmir didn’t listen to Aviles, calmly waiting while his small bag was examined.
Signing a minor-league contract with the Indians in December after nearly two years away from the big leagues, the veteran may be used to going unrecognized. But that could soon change.
A year after pitching for Texas’ Sugar Land Skeeters, Kazmir finished 10-9 for the Indians with a 4.04 ERA and 162 strikeouts over 158 innings.
Headed for free agency, Kazmir will command more attention on the market this time. His agent and the Indians were in preliminary contract discussions before the team reeled off 10 consecutive victories to finish the season. Kazmir said talks have been put on hold for the playoffs.
The Indians host the American League wild-card game Wednesday night.
“I would love to [re-sign with Cleveland],” said Kazmir, who has 21 strikeouts in 13 combined innings of his last two starts. “The staff, all the way up the organization, makes this a first-class organization. The teammates I have, it’s just great chemistry. I love coming to the park. I would love to come back, for sure.”
Kazmir admitted one of the main reasons he’d like to return is the opportunity the Indians gave him.
“Last year, when I couldn’t get much attention from any other teams, this was the team that stepped up and gave me a chance,” he said.
The road back wasn’t completely smooth. Kazmir struggled to find his mechanics over his first 11 starts as he went 3-4 with a 5.89 ERA. But Indians manager Terry Francona, pitching coach Mickey Callaway and the front office stuck with him.
“It was tough, rocky and very inconsistent,” Kazmir admitted. “But those guys did hang in there with me. I just kept trying to reiterate to them, ‘Everything feels good, just stay with me. I feel like things are going to turn around.’ And they did.”
After Francona juggled the rotation to give Kazmir about a week off to recover from a mini “dead arm” period, he bounced back, going 7-5 with a 3.06 ERA the rest of the way.
“To expect him to go through the whole year without some hiccups or bumps in the road, that’s unrealistic,” Francona said. “He’s managed [the increased innings] unbelievably well and our medical staff has done a great job.”
Ubaldo Jimenez was voted American League pitcher of the month for September, the first Indian to win the award since Cliff Lee in August 2008.
Jimenez also received the honor in April and May 2010, with the Colorado Rockies.
In six starts for the Tribe, Jimenez went 4-0 with a 1.09 ERA. He walked seven and struck out 51 in 41.1 innings as opponents batted .230 against him.
In September, Jimenez led AL pitchers in innings and strikeouts, was second in ERA, tied for second in victories and was fourth with 11.1 strikeouts per nine innings pitched.
Among those who also received votes were the Indians’ Bryan Shaw and ex-Indian Bartolo Colon of the Oakland Athletics.
Francona said center fielder Michael Bourn will participate in today’s workout after feeling “something” and pulling up as he attempted to steal second base Sunday. The problem was in the back of Bourn’s leg, below his hamstring.
Francona said designated hitter Jason Giambi (forearm) and pitcher Zach McAllister (side) were OK.
The Indians must trim the roster from 40 to 25 by Wednesday morning. Francona said they have an idea of what decisions must be made when they talk today.
If the Indians win Wednesday, the roster can be changed for the division series, which opens in Boston. Those games are scheduled for 3:07 p.m. Friday and 5:37 p.m. Saturday, televised by TBS.
Francona said the Indians would likely go with a nine-man bullpen on Wednesday because they don’t need five starting pitchers. As they began trimming the roster, outfielder Jason Kubel and pitchers Blake Wood and Preston Guilmet were sent home.
The Indians are encouraging fans attending Wednesday’s game to wear red as part of a “Rock Your Red” campaign. Progressive Insurance will distribute white rally towels. Former slugger Andre Thornton will throw out the first pitch.