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Kazmir ready to start improbable comeback journey with Giants

NBC Sports
Scott Kazmir

Scott Kazmir sat in front of a camera for a Zoom press conference over the weekend and smiled as he pondered the question. What had inspired this latest comeback attempt?

"How much time do we have," he said, laughing. 

That's one thing that apparently never will be an issue for the left-hander. Kazmir refuses to let the clock run out on his baseball career, and last week he signed a minor league deal with the Giants, hopeful that he can make it into a big league rotation at the age of 37, five years removed from his last MLB appearance. 

The road here is one Kazmir detailed in a matter-of-fact way, but there was a reason so many gathered to watch him throw for the first time over the weekend. Even in a camp full of fliers and second chances, Kazmir's story sticks out. 

Kazmir has known Giants director of pitching Brian Bannister since 2002, when both were New York Mets prospects in spring training in Port St. Lucie, Fla. He already was a two-time All-Star by the time pitching coach Andrew Bailey broke into the big leagues and won the Rookie of the Year Award in Oakland, one of six big league stops Kazmir has made. All the way back in 2004, in his fifth big league start, Kazmir struck out a Boston Red Sox outfielder named Gabe Kapler. The fact that he's now attempting to make another team is pretty incredible. 

 

"There's a lot of history there," Kapler said. "It was really a unique experience to see him in the orange and black on the bump for us in our bullpen. It's cool, it's very inspiring."

Kazmir has been down this path before, and he said his previous comeback gave him the blueprint for another try. He was out of the big leagues for two seasons because of injuries before helping to stabilize Cleveland's rotation in 2013. The next season, Kazmir made the All-Star team for Farhan Zaidi's A's. Kazmir pitched for Zaidi again two years later in Los Angeles, making 26 starts before injuries once again knocked him out of the game. 

The Atlanta Braves released Kazmir in the spring of 2018 and he returned to Houston to be around his parents, both of whom have been diagnosed with cancer. He and his wife also had two sons, but as he took care of his family, Kazmir never considered himself retired. 

"I knew that I had a lot of baseball left," he said, "And that I wanted to get back into baseball."

It started with a game of catch with former A's starter Kendall Graveman, and when Kazmir liked the way that felt, he kept throwing and eventually graduated to bullpen sessions. Last fall, he played in a small independent pop-up league in the Houston area run by former big leaguers Roger Clemens and Greg Swindell. Once he saw an opposing hitter in the box and felt his adrenaline spike, Kazmir knew he had to push for more. 

"It was something that I missed so much," he said. "I knew that this was a path for me. I just stayed motivated throughout that entire time."

Kazmir did not make a big deal publicly of the comeback attempt and said he purposely limited the number of teams he had contact with, but the Giants were always right near the top of the list. He knows Zaidi well and is familiar with the staff and roster, and he said he has "wanted to be part of this organization for a long time" after hearing so much about it from the other side. 

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The organization Kazmir is joining has been completely overhauled since he last pitched in a big league game, and in a way, so has pitching. Kazmir was a frequent visitor to Driveline in Washington and noticed how pitching development was growing by leaps and bounds when he went there in 2018 after two years away. At Scottsdale Stadium, he's throwing in front of multiple high-speed cameras every time out, with coaches showing him release points and grips and spin rate data on tablets between pitches. 

The game has changed, but the end goal hasn't.

Kazmir views himself once again as a starting option, and the Giants will let him take a real shot at it. They don't have a hole in their rotation but they're planning to potentially use double-digit starters this year as they recover from a shortened season, and Kazmir, who was hitting 93 mph in bullpen sessions, will get a long look. 

 

Before the Giants signed Kazmir, Kapler called Dave Eiland, a longtime big league pitching coach who managed Kazmir in independent ball. That conversation left Kapler confident that he potentially can use Kazmir, a player he faced nearly two decades ago, in his rotation at some point. 

"It was pretty clear that he looked pretty close to the Scott Kazmir that he saw for years," Kapler said. 

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