Originally posted on Fox Sports Houston  |  Last updated 7/23/12
SUGAR LAND Its easy to overlook incremental progress when stardom has already been achieved, when the wunderkind label fit snuggly before falling off somewhere along the decent into oblivion. The truth that appears to have been lost on most everyone else hasnt eluded Scott Kazmir. There is no shortcut back to the mountaintop, no magic elixir for one to consume that helps recapture the raw talent that resulted in the first of two All-Star Game appearances as a wide-eyed 22-year-old, and the honor to start Game 1 of the 2008 World Series. Kazmir didnt walk back into his reclamation project averse to adversity. But getting knocked down hasnt removed the edge from his desire to reclaim whats been loss as he travels his road to redemption. I want instant results, said Kazmir, now toiling for the independent Sugar Land Skeeters. I feel like Ive been out of the game for 10 years. He was too young for it to end this way, for his careening career to sit as a jumbled heap on the side of the road. For four seasons Kazmir spiraled downward, with his ceaseless search for solutions to what plagued him as elusive as the mid-90s fastball that bestowed upon him the spotlight. When it all came crashing down, when the Angles released him on June 15, 2011 despite Kazmir being in the middle of a season with a salary exceeding 12 million, there was nowhere left for Kazmir to go but home. He was out of answers and mentally drained. Family, friends and fishing became his refuge thus, at 27 years old and suddenly out of baseball, Kazmir unplugged from the game he adored and rebooted. Kazmir admitted to being lost, to struggling to find ways to fill the void that baseball had always occupied. He became a fledgling outdoorsman and breathed it all in. Baseball had consumed him and spat him out, and Kazmir had more than a year to decide which direction to take next. Being at home these 13, 14 months Ive been at home, I couldnt even turn on the TV to watch a baseball game, Kazmir said. I would just be sick to my stomach. I had a lot of passion for the game and how it ended, how quickly it ended, it was tough to swallow. In truth, the collapse was anything but quick. Kazmir had always shone brightly, from his days pitching alongside right-hander Clint Everts at Cypress Falls High School the duo became the first pair of prep teammates drafted in the first round when the Expos selected Everts fifth overall and the Mets tabbed Kazmir 15th in the 2002 first-year player draft through his ascent in the Mets system. When Mets general manager Jim Duquette infamously shipped Kazmir, their top pitching prospect, to the Tampa Bay Rays in exchange for veteran right-hander Victor Zambrano on July 30, 2004, Duquette was ridiculed for sacrificing a future star for a stopgap arm during a postseason surge. One year later Kazmir made 32 starts with the Rays and finished ninth in the American League Rookie of the Year voting. In 2006 he was named an All-Star for the first time in a game played at PNC Park in Pittsburgh (Kazmir pitched a scoreless inning in a 3-2 AL victory). Kazmir led the league in strikeouts with 239 in 2007, and when he earned his second All-Star selection the following season, it came as a minor miracle because Kazmir was already in the throes of regression. Kazmir pulled his left triceps in spring training and opened the 2008 season on the disabled list. He made his first start on May 4 and, despite favoring his left arm and subconsciously altering his mechanics to compensate and protect his elbow, Kazmir allowed more than three earned runs in a start only once prior to the All-Star break. He unwisely pitched through a pulled groin and, as his body began to feel better, attempted to ramp up his velocity, which had dipped to the upper-80s. By that point, with his legs providing little to support his delivery, Kazmir felt like someone else on the mound. His start against the Phillies in the World Series was poised to be a crowing achievement yet Kazmir was imprisoned in his body. His situation deteriorated in 2009. With his earned run average hovering around 6.00, Kazmir paid a visit to Mets pitching coach Rick Peterson in New Jersey around midseason. Kazmir changed his mechanics again, involving his hands more than ever before. His velocity returned almost immediately but by then the Rays had given up on Kazmir and traded him to the Angels on Aug. 29. Just like the previous season, Kazmir knew the glittering results he went 2-2 with a 1.73 ERA in six starts with the Angels were fools gold. He was shelled by the Red Sox in his lone postseason start that fall and resumed his struggles the next season with a 9-15 record and 5.94 ERA. It came to a point where I really didnt know how to actually be myself, to actually be able to throw how I was capable of throwing, Kazmir said. All this information that I was looking for and asking everyone what do I need to change here, I took everything that I heard to heart and tried to apply it. And then once I felt like it didnt work for that time being I had to switch to another thing and try to just find the answer. These 12, 13 months Ive been out, Ive learned a lot about myself and the way I pitch and how I got to where I was. Now its just a matter of repetitions and putting it all together. Following his release, Kazmir took more than a month away from baseball. He resumed workouts in August of last year under the tutelage of pitching guru Ron Wolforth and Houston Christian High School strength and conditioning coach Lee Fiocchi. When Kazmir went to the Dominican Republic and attempted to pitch in its Winter League, he lasted just 13 of an inning before returning home. He wasnt yet ready. When a handful of teams visited during spring training, his velocity remained in the low-to-mid-80s and his control was lacking. He still wasnt ready and didnt see the need to jump at the first big-league offer. Why go there when Im going to be in the same boat I was in when I was released in June, Kazmir said. Im going to try to search for everything throughout a four- or five-day span, and then Ive got to go out there and try to perform. His long, winding road led him to the Skeeters. Kazmir is taking things slowly. He was on a pitch count of 25 during his first appearance against Bridgeport on July 8, and stretched himself to 45 pitches a week later against Southern Maryland. After surrendering six earned runs on six hits in just one inning in that latter outing, Kazmir remained upbeat. Moderate success came against the Long Island Ducks on Saturday, with Kazmir hurling four scoreless innings, allowing three hits and no walks. It was a baby step like the thousands of others that preceded it, and considering how far hes walked since landing on his couch last June, Kazmir has every reason to see the rainbow at the end of these storms. Im looking at it positively, Kazmir said. I one hundred percent feel like I can get to where I was or even better. Mentally Im way stronger that I was before. Follow me on Twitter at moisekapenda
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