tampabay.com

Kazmir gets opening day honors

Manager Joe Maddon fulfills a dream for the Rays young left-hander.

By MARC TOPKIN
Published March 24, 2006


ST. PETERSBURG - Devil Rays manager Joe Maddon wouldn't have had to think too deeply for reasons to not name Scott Kazmir the opening day starter.

Kazmir is too young at 22. The burden could overwhelm him as it did Dewon Brazelton last season. His spring performance hasn't been good. Pitching against other aces could make for a long season. The pressure could be daunting.

But Maddon decided Thursday he had a better reason to give Kazmir the April 3 assignment: that it's the best thing for the pitcher and the team.

"That was largest concern that I had - how would he handle it personally - and just in meeting him and talking to him and the look in his eye, I think he's going to be fine," Maddon said. "And I also think it's going to be something that's going to make him a better pitcher. A mind once stretched, it's difficult to go back to its original form.

"So in a situation like this where you're going to give him this opportunity to be this opening day starter, I think it's going to stretch him and it's going to make him more confident, and I think that's going to be good for the Rays."

The announcement was hardly a surprise, even though Seth McClung and Casey Fossum had solid springs, as Kazmir has been lined up for the opener throughout the spring rotation. But the left-hander, acquired in the celebrated July 2004 trade from the Mets, said it was still very much gratifying to get the official word.

"What can I say? This is a dream for me," he said. "To be a leader of a staff, going into a season, it's everything I hoped for."

At 22 years, 2 months and 10 days, Kazmir will be the youngest opening day starter since Dwight Gooden did it at 21 for the Mets in 1986; Kazmir was 2 then.

He also will be the Rays' eighth opening day starter in their nine seasons, joining the likes of Albie Lopez (2001), Tanyon Sturtze (2002) and Brazelton, but Maddon hopes Kazmir's appearance will be the start of something.

"He's a young man that I think is ready to accept that kind of responsibility," Maddon said. "He's the kind of a fellow that can spearhead a rotation for many years to come."

After going 10-9 with a 3.77 ERA and an impressive 8.4 strikeouts per nine innings in his first full major-league season, Kazmir is expecting bigger things. So are the Rays, who have featured him in their promotional campaign (including his own billboards) and eventually may seek to sign him to a long-term contract.

"I think he's still developing a little bit, still learning how to pitch. His stuff is so good. He kind of reminds me of my situation when I first came up: raw talent," outfielder Carl Crawford said. "If he didn't throw 96-97 mph, he's just an average lefty. There's no way he gets away with the things he's been getting away with. Once he learns the little things he needs to learn, he's going to be a force to be reckoned with."

Though Kazmir has appeared to struggle with his control this spring (10 walks in 81/3 innings, then four in five innings of a minor-league game Thursday), he has maintained he feels good and will be ready to start the season. Maddon has insisted he is not worried, and Thursday's announcement was an obvious validation as Maddon said he gave more weight to Kazmir's heart and ability than his performance.

"It's a concern in a sense that he's walking people, but I think he's going to get beyond that, I really do," Maddon said. "I see basically a good delivery. I see basically good arm strokes. So I think he's gaining confidence, and that's part of being an opening day starter."

Kazmir said he appreciated Maddon having the confidence to pick him, and the conviction to follow through despite obvious reasons not to.

"I like that, I really do," Kazmir said. "He kind of just let me be free, I guess you could say. I think it's the right spot for me."