This marks the 30th anniversary of USA TODAY recognizing the nation's top high school athletes. As we prepare to unveil the 2013 American Family Insurance ALL-USA Baseball Team at the end of the season, we'll dig into the archives and check in with ALL-USA honorees from the past three decades. Today, we catch up with 2002 ALL-USA Player Scott Kazmir of Cypress Falls (Houston), who after being a two-time All-Star with the Tampa Bay Rays, is attempting a comeback at 29 with the Cleveland Indians.
Last summer, Scott Kazmir was pitching for the Sugarland (Texas) Skeeters of the independent Carolina League. It was a short drive from the Houston Astros' Minute Maid Park, but a long way from Kazmir's goal of getting back to the majors.
Kazmir, a two-time All-Star with the Tampa Bay Rays, hadn't pitched for a team since a troubled stint with the Angels in 2011, and he was in Sugarland, not far from where he once threw four consecutive no-hitters for Cypress Falls (Houston), to put his career back together and find the missing velocity on his fastball.
"When I talked with my friends, it wouldn't be too much about baseball," Kazmir said. "When I was out of the game, I couldn't turn on the TV and watch a baseball game."
Kazmir had always served as his own pitching coach and tried to piece his delivery back together.
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"I went out on my own and tried to work on things," Kazmir said. "I tried not to think about what I was missing (not being in the majors). I wanted to be in the league the next day, but I knew that wouldn't happen."
In one of his first outings with the Skeeters, he gave up six runs in one inning. Eventually however, he began to build back his motion, earning two wins in three starts late in the season.
Britt Burns was the Skeeters' pitching coach last season. This season he's in the same role for the Birmingham Barons, the Chicago White Sox's AA Southern League affiliate.
"He got hit hard early in the season," Burns said. "It was tough for him, to his credit, he kept working through it. There were some days it wasn't fun for him to come down from being an All-Star to being in independent ball and get batted around."
Burns pointed out a few things about Kazmir's delivery on film.
"He had some things going on mechanically that made it difficult for him to throw strikes," Burns said. "We showed him, how in long toss, he kept his head on line and the ball really carried. You could see he had the arm strength. In the meantime, he started really mastering some secondary pitches. He started working on his own, coming up with adjustments."
Last winter, playing for the Carolina Gigantes in Puerto Rico, his fastball, the pitch that helped him lead the American League in strikeouts in 2007, began to come back.
"It was more than halfway through the season in winter ball that it started to click," Kazmir said. "I knew I just needed to go out there every fifth day and pitch."
He was signed by the Cleveland Indians to a minor league contract, invited to the team's spring training and on Wednesday, made his ninth start with the big club.
The comeback has been bumpy at times. He was injured to start the season after pulling an abdominal muscle, then was rocked in his first outing, allowing six runs in 3.1 innings against the Astros.
"I stayed positive," Kazmir said. "Right before opening day, I get a strained ab. I'm thinking, 'You have to be kidding me!' I ended up coming back from that. My first start, I had a lot of nerves going. I knew there was the possibility that things wouldn't go right. I felt like when I went out there, I tried to do too much. I almost threw it out the window to show out in my home city. After that got out of the way, I settled down."
After striking out five over seven innings in a 7-1 defeat of the Cincinnati Reds on May 30, he came back Wednesday and gave up four runs in the fourth inning of a 4-3 loss to the New York Yankees. He's 3-3 through nine starts with a 5.24 earned run average but his fastball is again in the mid-90s and he's getting strikeouts, with 48 in 46.1 innings and even some of his opponents are rooting for him.
"It feels great to have people behind you, pulling for you," Kazmir said. "I felt all along like I had the arm strength. I've never had surgery. The only thing I've had is minor injuries that put me on the DL for small periods of time. That was the main thing that kept me confident."