Covering the Bases: Game 72

621KazFinal: Indians 5, Twins 1

FIRST: Scott Kazmir didn’t look like the old Scott Kazmir in his win over the Twins on Friday night. He looked like the new Kazmir.

Take it from Twins manager Ron Gardenhire:

“It’s a different pitcher. He still has a little velocity, but nothing like he did way back. He used to kind of fire the ball all over the place, keep you off-balance and keep you a little nervous, too, the way he used to let it go.

“He’d miss here and there, but then he would throw the nasty pitches. He’s a little bit more in command of himself out there on the mound right now.’

Gardenhire hit on two points Kazmir made following his latest start. In his recent outings (Kazmir had a 7.98 ERA over his previous three turns), the lefty said he felt so good that he was almost trying to blow every pitch by hitters. After his last start (a 2.2-inning disaster), Kazmir went to work on pulling on the reins and getting things back in order and under control.

Kazmir was able to take that into his outing against the Twins.

“Looking back on it,” he said, “there was some stuff that I wanted to clean up this go-round and kind of be a little bit more under control. I feel like the last three or four starts, I’ve felt so good that I want to throw it by everyone, where I don’t want to make it that hard on myself.

“If I’m able to work both sides of the plate, stay in control and am able to use all my pitches, it’s a little bit easier out there to be able to go out there and get quick outs.”

Against Minnesota, Kazmir finished with seven strikeouts and no walks in seven innings. The lefty allowed one run (a solo homer to Brian Dozier in the sixth inning) and scattered five hits in his 95-pitch performance. This came after he allowed 13 runs on 19 hits in 14.2 innings across the last three starts.

So, Kazmir isn’t the pitcher he was in his prime with the Rays. What he is now is a smarter version of that pitcher with nearly the same stuff. The velocity is a tick under what it once was with Tampa Bay. According to fangraphs.com, Kazmir is averaging 92.1 mph (fastball), 82.3 mph (slider) and 80.7 mph (changeup). In 2007, when he led the American League in strikeouts, those pitches were 92.1, 83.7 and 81.4, respectively.

Heading into Friday’s start, his 28% rate of forcing swings at pitches outside the strike zone was the best mark of his career. Kazmir’s 62-percent first-pitch strike rate was also the best such percentage of his career. Kazmir’s contact percentage of 81.1 is the lowest it’s been since 2008 (75.5). After Friday’s  outing, Kazmir also improved his strike0ut-to-walk ratio to 2.70, which is the best it’s been since 2006 (3.13).

It has been a really up-and-down season for Kazmir, though.

“If we thought he would get through the whole year without some hiccups,” Indians manager Terry Francona said, “that’s probably unrealistic just with the amount of innings, and where he pitched last year.”

To Francona’s point, here is Kazmir’s season broken into its peaks and valleys:

April 20 debut: 16.20 ERA (3.1 IP)
April 27-May 9 (3 starts): 2.65 ERA (17 IP), .680 OPS
May 14-20 (2 starts): 10.13 ERA (8 IP), 1.121 OPS
May 25-30 (2 starts): 2.25 ERA (12 IP), .729 OPS
June 4-15 (3 starts): 7.98 ERA (14.2 IP), .998 OPS
June 21 vs. Twins:  1.29 ERA (7 IP)

Maybe that kind of roller coaster could’ve been expected considering Kazmir’s comeback trail, but don’t expect him to be fine with that explanation.

“It bothers me. I’m a competitor. It really bothers me,” Kazmir said. “That being said, you want to be successful every time you go out there, but you know just from not having the reps — it’s been a while — that it’s going to be a little shaky at times. You’ve just got to continue to keep your head down and keep moving forward.”

SECOND: There have been three instances in the Majors this season where a baserunner scored on a sacrifice fly to a second baseman. Two of the three came with Indians outfielder Drew Stubbs on third base. He’s some kind of fast.

In the third inning Friday night, Jason Kipnis sent a pitch to Dozier deep in the infield behind the bag at second. Dozier made the catch long enough for an out, but dropped the ball to the grass on the transfer. Stubbs, tagging on the play, scored from third and made it look easy.

“That was an unbelievable piece of baserunning by Stubbs,” Francona said. “He has no business scoring right there.”

Francona said Stubbs played it right by tagging, but it takes a special runner to score in that situation.

“There’s no reason to go halfway there,” Francona said. “If that gets over [Dozier's] head, he’s going to walk home. But the instincts to be able to go on that and then to have the speed to match. You’ll find some guys who have great instincts who will be out by 20 feet.”

That put the Indians up 2-0 at the time, proving to be a crucial run.

THIRD: Kipnis was credited with an RBI for that unlikely sac fly and the Tribe’s second baseman chipped in two more runs with a bases-loaded single in a three-run seventh. Kipnis keeps chugging along in June. Through 18 games this month, he has hit .356 (22-or-62) with one homer, five doubles, seven runs scored and 12 RBIs for Cleveland. He has reached base via hit, walk or hit-by-pitch in 23 straight games.

HOME: They only go down as singles in the box score, but Mark Reynolds sent a pair of pitches bouncing off the wall in left-field on Friday night. Hopefully for the Indians, that is a sign that Mega Mark is beginning to pull himself out of the slump that has dogged him for the past month.

“Both singles, but very good swings,” Francona said. “He had a couple good swings in the last game before the day off [Thursday]. That’ll be nice when those balls carry a little bit over and he gets hot and some of those are like three-run homers. That’ll be really nice for us.”

Dating back to May 30, Reynolds has one homer and three RBIs in 74 plate appearances. In his first 204 plate appearances this season, Reynolds had 13 homers and 41 RBIs for the Indians.

Reynolds’ first single Friday night was the source of some debate in the press box.

In the second inning, Reynolds slid into second base trying for a double, but was tagged out on the play. Thinking he was out, Reynolds slide through the bag, popped up, put his head down and began to head for the dugout. Second-base umpire Eric Cooper had motioned that Reynolds was safe going into second, though. A confused Reynolds tried to dive back into the bag, but he was tagged (again?) for the out.

“I knew I was out,” Reynolds said. “But I guess [Cooper] didn’t have a good angle. I guess that’s why you don’t assume things. I just assumed he was going to call me out, because I was out by a couple feet.”

The hit officially was ruled a single, because in the scorer’s opinion, Reynolds over-slid second base. Under that scenario, he didn’t “safely” reach second before being tagged out. And so it goes.

ON DECK:

Twins (33-37) at Indians (37-35)
at 7:15 p.m. ET on Saturday at Progressive Field

–JB

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