Gutsy start by Kazmir kept Rays in it
Despite early struggles, southpaw marched on in Game 2
ST. PETERSBURG -- There was only one thought running through the mind of Rays manager Joe Maddon while he watched pitcher Scott Kazmir begin to unravel in the first inning on Friday night.
It was a forced mantra, because Maddon could've easily bolted from the dugout and pulled the plug on Kazmir's start against the White Sox. Instead, Maddon stayed put and hoped Kazmir could pull an early escape act in Game 2 of the American League Division Series.
That took some mental fortitude on Maddon's part, considering Kazmir was mired in a bases-loaded jam with no outs in a lengthy first inning. Kazmir wiggled free of the 37-pitch frame with just two runs allowed, and the lefty rebounded well enough to guide Tampa Bay to a 6-2 victory over Chicago to take a 2-0 series lead.
There was only one way to describe Kazmir's evening.
"I would say it was an extremely gutsy performance," Rays pitching coach Jim Hickey. "It was gigantic. The easiest thing in the world would've been to just kind of fold the tent in the first inning."
It also would've been understandable if the Rays decided to turn to the bullpen.
During the prolonged opening frame, Maddon had rookie left-hander David Price stretching near the bullpen down the first-base line. By the second inning, in which Kazmir issued a two-out walk and allowed a single to put two Sox runners on base, Price and reliever Chad Bradford were warming up on the mounds.
In the end, Kazmir spared his relievers until the sixth inning.
"Kaz developed and got into a nice tempo or a rhythm," Maddon said. "Whenever he does that, man, he's really good. So, he was able to hold strong for 5 1/3 [innings], and that was important to our victory."
Two pitches into the game, Kazmir hit White Sox leadoff man Orlando Cabrera with a pitch and the southpaw followed with a walk to Nick Swisher. Chicago's Jermaine Dye added a single to load the bases, creating a daunting situation. Kazmir said he was simply struggling with his location.
"It was just me not really trusting my stuff," Kazmir said. "It was kind of, I tried to get a little bit extra and I just found myself going side to side instead of just going right after the hitters, and falling toward the plate."
Later in the first inning, Jim Thome singled home a run and Alexei Ramirez added an RBI sacrifice fly. But that was all the damage Kazmir allowed. Escaping the inning with just a two-run deficit gave the Rays' hitters a good chance to mount a comeback.
"He really gave us a chance to get back in it," Rays third baseman Evan Longoria said. "When we see that, from an offensive standpoint, it just gives us the confidence that, 'All right, this guy is settled in. He's going to give us four or five more strong, so let's get some runs for him.'"
After needing 37 pitches to work through the first, in which he only threw 54 percent of his pitches for strikes, Kazmir used just 61 throws the rest of the way. Over his final 4 1/3 innings, the 24-year-old left-hander threw 72 percent of his pitches for strikes.
Maddon said Kazmir looked like a completely different pitcher as the game wore on. So, even though the manager was ready and willing to turn the game over to Price, he saw enough to stick with Kazmir.
"When he got to the third or fourth inning," Maddon said, "the strikes were more consistent -- more consistent with the delivery. [There was] just a better look about him overall."
Kazmir's rocky performance was consistent with his showing during the season. In his 27 starts, Kazmir pitched into the seventh inning on just six occasions and he averaged fewer than six innings per start over his final 19 appearances. Kazmir also averaged 18.1 pitches per inning this year -- the highest mark in baseball.
That made Friday feel all too familiar.
"It just seems like lately," Kazmir said, "I kind of start the game bases loaded, nobody out, 20 pitches deep, and I've just got to go get them. I had to go out there and battle the whole time and I just had great defensive plays behind me."
Maddon was thrilled with the end result.
"I love the fact that he was able to battle though this difficult moment on a pretty big stage," he said. "I think that tells a lot about his makeup and character."
Jordan Bastian is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.