OAKLAND, Calif. — 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 21/2 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.
'OH, NO' TO 'AH-HA'
"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."
The 'Ah-ha' moment was a long time in coming. Shortly after being released by the Angels, Kazmir was, in his own words, in "panic mode."
"It was, 'I gotta try this now, because that didn't work,'"ï¿½" Kazmir said. "Or something would work one time, and it wouldn't work the next. So maybe that's not it, either. By that time, I was maybe too far gone for the quick fix."
It was time for the slow, sometimes painful fix. Kazmir turned to Ron Wolforth, a one-time minor league pitcher who has become something of a pitching guru with his Texas Baseball Ranch, not located all that far from Kazmir's home in Cypress.
"When Scotty got released, there was kind of an 'all-hands-on-deck' behavior for us here and for his trainer, Lee Fiocchi," Wolforth said. "We wanted to see if there was any pain, to see how he'd recover from throwing segment to throwing segment.
"It was never a case that he wasn't strong physically. But from a lot of other different shapes_mental, emotional and mechanical_he was beat up. His game was flawed, and he was really questioning himself."
And he didn't answer questions particularly well. Wolforth suspected there was the possibility of an injury that was at the root of Kazmir's problems, but the pitcher denied being hurt. Over time, however, it came out that Kazmir's troubles had started with a bit of pain he had suffered while pitching for Tampa Bay.
"He'd tweaked a groin, and that changed his movement pattern," Wolforth said. "Slowly but surely things started to unravel for him, small things at first. Then it became a crescendo of things. He was pretty disconnected. What started as a physical thing then became mental, then also emotional. It was a witch's brew of problems.
"I asked him how his arm was. He said, 'My arm is great.' That wasn't the case. It was fatigued, it was tender, it was tight, it took me about nine months, pouring over video of him in high school, him with the Mets, him early with the Rays, him late with the Rays, him with the Angels. Over time you could see he was not the same."
To eliminate the groin pain, Kazmir had stopped pushing with his legs to generate power. He and Fiocchi worked on building back his hip, lower body strength and mobility to the point where he was getting the arm action he had in high school.
The radar gun didn't show it. The first time Kazmir tested the gun with his rebuilt arm action, it showed an 83 mph reading. Kazmir let fly "with words that would make a sailor blush," Wolforth said.
"He was grumpy all the time after that. But he didn't quit."
The last few games with Sugar Land showed that Kazmir had mended. He 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.
"Everything I've been through in the last few years has shaped who I am now. I'm a lot more appreciative and grateful for where I'm at. I'm in a totally different mindset. Sugar Land seems like a long time ago, but it really wasn't."