OAKLAND — Never heard of the Sugar Land Skeeters nor the Atlantic League? You’re not alone. The Atlantic League is not affiliated with Major League Baseball, and its rosters are populated by has-beens and never-weres, players who can’t let go and hope for one more day in the sun.
Scott Kazmir, the A’s All-Star left-hander, was one of those.
Now sitting atop a starting rotation for the team with the best record in the big leagues, it was less than 2½ years ago that Kazmir received a call from Gary Gaetti, a former All-Star third baseman for the Minnesota Twins and now the Skeeters’ manager.
Stripped of his fastball and bewildered by his sudden fall from success, Kazmir had been released by the Los Angeles Angels and was out of baseball when Gaetti called.
“I knew Scott when I was with the (Tampa Bay) Rays at Triple A (as a batting coach),” Gaetti said. “At that point, he was at the top of his game. I knew his agent (Brian Peters), and I felt our situation was perfect for him. He was local and still in good shape.”
Kazmir, who hails from Houston, a few miles from the suburb that the Skeeters call home, resisted Gaetti’s overture at first. But he came around.
“It wasn’t pretty at the time,” Gaetti said. “You could tell his stuff was still there, but he had lost his command. He had to fight through it. We told him he could move at his own pace with us. He didn’t have to worry about getting released. We would let him struggle.”
Kazmir lost five of his first six decisions. In 14 starts with the Skeeters, he was 3-6 and had a 5.34 ERA. But numbers aren’t everything, and those three wins in September 2012 set the stage for what the A’s are seeing now.
“It was one of my last starts (against the Long Island Ducks) where I was sitting at 88, 89 (mph) for the entire game,” Kazmir said, looking back to Sept. 10, 2012. “I ended up having a left-handed batter up with a man on first base. Later in the count, the runner made a little jerk like he was going to steal second. I stayed back a little longer, and that pitch was like 93. It was kind of that ‘Ah-ha’ moment. The next three pitches were like 95.”
Kazmir went to Puerto Rico for winter ball and had success, then spent last season in Cleveland, where a strong second half convinced the A’s that the left-hander was worth the gamble of a two-year contract.
When he makes his first start of the second half Tuesday against Houston, Kazmir will bring an 11-3 record and 2.38 ERA into the game.
“The past is the past,” manager Bob Melvin said. “What our guys saw was someone who was throwing good, throwing hard and wasn’t that old (29 when he signed). And he’s been a great story, everything that we could have hoped.”
An All-Star when he was 22 years old and again at 24, Kazmir has a new appreciation for what he has.
“I came up when I was 20 years old,” he said. “I always liked to have fun. At the same time, I tried to respect the job. It’s just that now it’s on a whole other level. When you get to the big leagues as a kid like I did, it’s tough to balance the fun and the job.