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Giants' Kazmir 'on cloud nine' in first MLB start since '16

NBC Sports
Giants' Scott Kazmir

SAN FRANCISCO -- It was a play that will be completely lost in the box score, and it was almost missed on the broadcast, too, as the Fox crew interviewed Giants manager Gabe Kapler from the dugout. But there was no better play to explain how remarkable it was that Scott Kazmir was on the mound at Oracle Park on Saturday than a grounder to the right side in the top of the second. 

Gavin Lux pulled a fastball to first baseman Brandon Belt and took off, showing the elite speed that helped make him a top prospect in the minors. He got down the line at 30.2 feet per second, but Kazmir beat him there. The 37-year-old took the feed from Belt and stepped on the bag, a half-step ahead of a 23-year-old shortstop who was six years old when Kazmir made his big league debut, and just three months removed from high school the last time the lefty pitched in an MLB game.

Kazmir certainly did not look like someone coming off a five-year layoff when he beat Lux to the bag, his long hair flowing out of his Giants hat because a scheduled haircut Saturday morning was canceled by a surprising call back to the big leagues. He certainly didn't pitch like one, either. 

Kazmir gave the Giants four solid innings in his first big league appearance since 2016, allowing just two hits and one run. He couldn't prevent a 6-3 loss that clinched the series for the Dodgers and dropped the Giants out of first place in the NL West, but there was no wiping the smile off Kazmir's face after the game. Kapler wasn't happy with the team's performance, but he couldn't hide his pride, either. 

 

"I thought he did a great job," Kapler said in a postgame video conference. "And I told him as much."

Kazmir didn't have much time before or after the game to put perspective around his 299th big league appearance. He found out late Friday night that he might be starting, and on Saturday he got the official word and hopped in a car with a team employee, racing down from Sacramento. He said the day was "go go go from the get-go," but he enjoyed every second of it. 

"I'm just on cloud nine right now," he said. "To be able to be here right now, it seems like a dream."

Kazmir had not been on a big league mound since Sept. 23, 2016, but he never considered himself retired after the Braves released him in the spring of 2018. He returned to Houston to care for his family, including two parents diagnosed with cancer, but he always kept one eye on MLB.

"I knew that I had a lot of baseball left," he said this spring. 

Kazmir had already once returned to the big leagues after a two-year break, and this second comeback started with a game of catch with former A's pitcher Kendall Graveman and included a stint in an independent pop-up league in Texas run by former big leaguers Roger Clemens and Greg Swindell. Seeing a hitter in the box got the juices flowing, and Kazmir got in contact with a small number of teams last offseason.

The Giants were at the top of his list, and an easy fit. Kazmir pitched for Farhan Zaidi in Oakland and Los Angeles, but his connections go so much deeper. He was in camp with director of pitching Brian Bannister way back in 2002. Two years later, in his sixth career game, he faced Kapler, then an outfielder with the Boston Red Sox. 

The two were teammates in 2009 in Tampa Bay, a team that included Evan Longoria. As he watched Kazmir work through the early innings, Kapler turned to Andrew Bailey, who played against Kazmir, and noted that he had once been in the same lineup as his starter and third baseman. Kapler admitted there was a little extra emotion in the dugout early on. 

"I think that has to do with his journey," he said. "I think there was a little additional excitement to watch Kaz pitch today because I think everybody was kind of impressed with what he has overcome and what he has accomplished over the course of the last couple of years. The layoff makes it a pretty impressive feat."

 

The Dodgers got two hits off their former starter, both by Max Muncy, who was scuffling with the A's the last time Kazmir pitched in the big leagues. Muncy hit a long homer in the first, but Kazmir said that actually settled him down. 

"The adrenaline was there. I was very nervous to start everything," he said. "But once I got settled in I felt comfortable and was able to throw strikes and attack hitters. I felt good out there."

Kazmir's pitch count wasn't built up enough to get past the fourth, and the Giants fell behind by four once he came out of the game and failed to get to Walker Buehler, who matched Trevor Bauer's brilliance. Kazmir watched the final innings on the dugout rail, enjoying life back in the big leagues, and perhaps wondering what comes next. 

The 37-year-old is on the 40-man roster now, which certainly keeps him in the mix, but Kapler said it was too soon to make any announcements about his rotation. The Giants hope to get Logan Webb back next weekend, but they're not sure yet if his shoulder will be ready. 

The next step for Kazmir is to be determined, but that won't bother him. He always believed he had more big league pitches in him, and he proved it Saturday. 

"It's a testament to his drive and his determination and his willingness to kind of go through some difficult stretches," Kapler said. "It's not easy to be an established major league pitcher with a long career and a lot of service time and make a ton of money, and then go back and pitch in independent ball because you believe in yourself and you think you can get outs at the major league level. To see it all come together for him is quite a story."

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