SAN DIEGO — Scott Kazmir’s first three Major League pitches since June 4 sent a National League MVP contender back to his dugout.
After stepping on the Petco Park rubber, Kazmir dealt to Fernando Tatis Jr.. Fastball, 91 mph, fouled back. Changeup, 11 mph slower, called strike. Then a sinker that Tatis Jr. waved through.
Each came after taking a rocker step, then raising his right knee high and pointing his toe to the ground. Three pitches, one strikeout. The 37-year-old began his third MLB start in the last five years by striking out Tatis Jr., then retiring All-Stars Jake Cronenworth and Manny Machado on his next five offerings.
Kazmir had pitched over 1,738 big league innings in his career. That one was his first in more than three months.
Kazmir added three more innings of one-run ball to set up the Giants (99-53) with a 3-1 lead. He made it through San Diego’s talented lineup twice without damage, and the rest of his team picked him up to pull away with an 8-6 victory. Buster Posey went 4-for-5 with three runs, and both Tommy La Stella and Brandon Belt scored twice. Tatis Jr. could’ve sent the game into extras or put the Padres ahead in the bottom of the ninth inning against Tyler Rogers, but he flied out to left field.
Putting Kazmir’s age into perspective reads like a bad stand-up routine. He’s so old, Tatis Jr. was three when he was drafted in the first round of the 2002 MLB Draft. So old, he’s the last active player to play for Tampa Bay before they removed the “Devil” from their name. So old, two of his former teammates — Gabe Kapler and Fernando Perez — are now his manager and video analyst.
Kazmir’s veteran savvy surely helped him maintain composure after allowing a two-out ground rule double in the second inning to put runners on second and third. After a quick mound visit from Kapler, Kazmir intentionally walked catcher Victor Caratini to face reliever Ryan Weathers, who ended the inning with a groundout.
After getting through the deadliest part of San Diego’s lineup a second time, Kazmir retired Eric Hosmer, Wil Myers and Trent Grisham in order with 11 fourth-inning pitches.
A little run support didn’t hurt Kazmir, either. The Giants jumped out to a 3-0 lead in the top of the first inning when SF loaded the bases against Vince Velasquez and Kris Bryant cleared them with a one-out double into right-center. Bryant’s barrel extended his on-base streak to 20.
He also got picked up by his defense, namely Brandon Crawford.
But then Crawford misplayed a Jake Marisnick single in the bottom of the fifth inning. Two walks and a catcher’s interference later, rookie Camilo Doval — 13 years Kazmir’s junior — replaced the veteran.
Before Wednesday’s game, Kapler said “it’s time to push Camilo a little bit.” Inheriting the bases loaded with no outs in a two-run ballgame certainly qualifies.
Doval struck out Manny Machado on three sliders. Then the flamethrower induced a 6-4-3 double play, preserving SF’s 3-1 lead.
“I think (September baseball) can be a huge boost of confidence for him,” Kapler said pregame. “You can already see he’s walking around with a little bit more swagger. We’ve seen that with a few of our young pitchers. Experience some success. Every time they go out to the mound, they’re going to take some of their previous outings with them. That’s true for Camilo right now.”
With the help of Doval’s 10th straight scoreless appearance, Kazmir finished with four innings pitched, four hits, one unearned run, three strikeouts and three walks.
Kapler has indicated Kazmir could play a role in the postseason if he performs well at the MLB level. One start won’t be enough to earn a roster spot outright, but the Giants value Kazmir’s experience. The Olympic silver medalist has made eight postseason starts, including two in the 2008 World Series.
If Johnny Cueto, who’s making a rehab start Thursday for the Sacramento River Cats, can’t recover from his hamstring injury in time for the playoffs, Kazmir would be SF’s most experienced starter.
When the Braves released Kazmir in 2018, he could’ve let his baseball life peeter out. He instead decided to pitch again in 2020 after two years away from the game.
Now he’s affecting the playoff race. As Doval cleaned up Kazmir’s mess, the Dodgers fell to the Rockies in Coors Field, 10-5. RBI singles from Brandon Crawford and Mike Yastrzemski gave the Giants more breathing room in the sixth. Posey/ and LaMonte Wade Jr. poured on three more in the seventh. Despite a three-run seventh inning led by Tatis Jr. and Machado and a nerve-racking ninth inning from Rogers, the Giants hung on and now enjoy a two-game division lead.
In a remarkable season with too many surprising performances to count, a pitcher who appeared out of the league two years ago and is fresh out of competing in Tokyo making an impact in late September rises high on that list.
“It’s been a crazy year, a very eventful year,” Kazmir said Tuesday. “I don’t think I ever would have thought I’d be in this position in January, so it’s all good. I love every moment of it… It’s been a hell of a ride.”
A hell of a ride indeed, both for Kazmir and the ballclub he’s moonlighting for.