ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- Oh, to be in the head of Curt Schilling last night, to know what the 39-year-old thought as he watched Scott Kazmir, methodical, unshakable, and nearly untouchable. To know what he thought as the 22-year-old, who Schilling in April said is ``getting better and learning" to pitch inside, owned the plate, all sides. To know what he thought as Kazmir, who was just named to an All-Star team that does not include Schilling, went out and validated his selection.
Last night, in the most captivating and presumably most rewarding night of his young career, Kazmir knew how to pitch in, out, up, down, and to all the right places at all the right times.
Josh Beckett, who gave up the game's three runs on three solo home runs in a 3-0 Red Sox loss before 26,149 at Tropicana Field, saw almost immediately that Kazmir knew the kind of stuff he had and knew he could dictate the pace. By night's end he'd put together a masterpiece: a two-hit, 120-pitch, 84-strike shutout. Never before had he worked a complete game, let alone a shutout.
``After his second inning he really started getting in a groove, getting the ball back quick, that look of, `Let's go,' pounding it in," Beckett said.
That allowed Kazmir to ring up 10 Ks, all of them swinging, including Jason Varitek four times (93-mile-per-hour fastball, 85-m.p.h. biting slider, 94-m.p.h. high heater, 86-m.p.h. slider in the dirt). David Ortiz whiffed twice, both on sliders. Coco Crisp fanned twice as well, at a 93-m.p.h. fastball and 85-m.p.h. slider. Mike Lowell, who had gone a major league-leading 47 plate appearances without a whiff, kissed that goodbye in the seventh, on a riding fastball. Manny Ramírez fanned once, with the bases loaded in the third, ending the Sox' only real threat.
``That was impressive," manager Terry Francona said. ``He has an exploding fastball. We've seen that from Day 1. Now, he's mixing in a changeup, a slider. Some of those sliders he threw David were as good as I've seen."
High praise. But the Sox are becoming used to this act. In 11 starts against the Sox, Kazmir is 5-2 with a 2.60 ERA. (George Steinbrenner, who lives in Tampa, must be counting down the days until the end of the 2010 season, when Kazmir could hit the open market.)
``Some guys, against certain teams, there's a comfort zone," Beckett said. ``Maybe he likes the way his stuff matches up."
Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon agreed, to an extent.
``Even though it's different lineups, it's still the Red Sox," Maddon said. ``He gets more enthused against teams like the Red Sox and the Yankees."
Does Kazmir concur?
``Sure," he said. ``You try to go out there the same way against everybody you face, but this is a lot more fun. It's much more intense."
Beckett, who is extremely high on Kazmir (10-5, 3.29 ERA), said without prompting, ``He's a competitor. I can't believe the Mets traded him," referring to the July 2004 deal that brought Kazmir and Jose Diaz to Tampa in exchange for Victor Zambrano and Bartolome Fortunato. ``Someday that might well be the worst [deal ever]."
Beckett, meanwhile, continues to look more and more like the pitcher the Sox expected when they dealt for him this winter. He went seven rather sharp innings but ran into three well-placed pieces of lumber.
Ty Wigginton, leading off the Tampa Bay third, got a 1-and-2 fastball centered on the plate at 94 m.p.h. and hammered it to left. Russell Branyan, leading off the fifth, got a 2-and-0 changeup up and away and lofted it to the opposite field. Branyan has 10 homers this season and just eight singles in 113 at-bats. Beckett then made a good 2-and-1 pitch, a fastball down and on the outer edge to Wigginton, but he went down and got it. His second homer, a bolt to dead center, made it 3-0 Tampa Bay.
``You have to hit off the fastball when a guy throws as hard as he does," said Wigginton, who saw plenty of Beckett the last few years playing with Pittsburgh and the Mets.
Asked if he's surprised that Beckett ranks second in all of baseball in homers allowed, Wigginton said, ``Yeah. I faced him a lot in the National League. He has some of the best stuff around. I'm sure that won't be the case in the long run."
The three home runs sent Beckett's homer total for the season soaring to 23 in 16 starts. Over a 35-start season, that would project to a whopping 50 homers allowed. Previously, pitching in the NL and pitcher-favorable Dolphin Stadium, Beckett had allowed no more than 16 in a season. Wigginton, meanwhile, became the fifth opposing batter this year to record a multi-homer game against Beckett. The others: Toronto's Vernon Wells (April 21), Cleveland's Ben Broussard (April 27), and Toronto's Wells and Troy Glaus (May 30).
In 106 games with Florida, Beckett had allowed three home runs in a game just once. This season, he's allowed three homers on three occasions and four homers once.
``I can't worry about it because I can't go back in time and say I want this one back, this one," said Beckett, who, despite the loss, is 3-1 with a 3.18 ERA in five starts since being shelled for eight runs (seven earned) in 1 1/3 innings June 5 at Yankee Stadium. ``At least now they're solo homers. Earlier in the year they were three-run homers because I was walking guys. I feel like I'm definitely getting there as far as executing pitches, especially early in the game. My changeup is coming along.
``You're never happy with a loss, but today I got outpitched. That kid pitched his butt off."
Kazmir, who became the youngest pitcher since John Smoltz in 1989 to win 10 games this early in a season, allowed his only hits to No. 9 hitter Alex Gonzalez (single) with one out in the third and Ramírez (double) leading off the ninth. Gonzalez, with a compact swing, lobbed a single into left field in the third, extending his hitting streak to 12 games. Kevin Youkilis then reached on an error by shortstop Julio Lugo. With two outs, Ortiz walked, bringing up Ramírez with the bases loaded in the only jam Kazmir faced all night.
He began Ramírez with an 84-m.p.h. changeup for a called strike. He went ahead, 0-and-2, on a perfectly spotted fastball (93 m.p.h. down and in). Ramírez weakly bounced the next pitch foul to the left, then got tied up with a slider down and in, swinging and missing to end the threat.
``I have not had that pitch in quite a while." Kazmir said of his slider. ``It was a great feeling to finally get a feel for it."
The third-inning strikeout left Ramírez 3 for 27 (.111) lifetime vs. Kazmir. He and Ortiz are just 9 for 57 (.158) with 18 Ks lifetime against the lefty.
Kazmir, with 106 pitches through eight innings, came back for the ninth. Ramírez greeted him with a stinging double to center.
With Varitek up, Kazmir threw a pitch at 95 m.p.h. that missed well high and wide, bringing pitching coach Mike Butcher out of the dugout. Maddon wanted Kazmir to settle down and to go back to throwing 92-93.
``I had to calm down a little bit," Kazmir acknowledged.
He fanned Varitek. He then got Lowell to pop up.
That left only Gabe Kapler standing in his way. Kapler, who might have dented the right-field wall earlier in the night making a fearless catch, fell behind, 0-and-2. The crowd at Tropicana, in a rare scene, was standing and hollering for the dynamic lefthander. And he delivered, getting Kapler to ground out to nail down the win.