He is the youngest of the Devil Rays' starting pitchers, but 23-year-old Scott Kazmir already has learned to identify what manager Joe Maddon's strides mean as he heads out to the mound.
During the bottom of the seventh inning last night at Fenway Park, Tampa Bay was ahead, 1-0, but the Red Sox were threatening. Bobby Kielty had ripped a single to left field and, after Kevin Youkilis struck out, Jason Varitek fought back from an 0-and-2 count and managed a walk. With one out and two men on, up came Jacoby Ellsbury, who had singled off Kazmir in the third.
For a moment Kazmir thought his night might be done, but as he studied Maddon's walk, it told him differently.
"It was a slow walk, but he would've already pointed his finger to the bullpen," said Kazmir. "Once he got past that mark, I figured I was still in this ballgame."
What did surprise Kazmir was what Maddon told him. The skipper wanted Kazmir to treat this like a playoff game. Given that the Devil Rays have no shot at the postseason, Maddon wanted him to practice what a playoff situation could feel like. The result? Ellsbury struck out swinging and Alex Cora grounded into a force play. Kazmir was out of the inning, and his bullpen held off the Sox for a 1-0 victory.
"It jacked me up," said Kazmir, referring to the pep talk. "It really did. It pumped me up. I was going on adrenaline to begin with. That intensified it, I guess you could say.
"I felt like the ball was getting out of my hand nice. After Joe told me that, it kind of gave me a little bit extra. I felt strong throughout the whole game. It came the seventh inning, I wanted to mainly rely on my fastball."
Kazmir threw a season-high 118 pitches, 80 for strikes, and improved his record to 12-8. He gave up five hits in seven innings, walking two and striking out 10. It marked the fourth time this season and 12th time in his career he struck out at least 10.
Maddon said he thought the atmosphere would provide Kazmir with a good lesson.
"I just thought he had great stuff," said the manager. "I thought, based on the whole vibe of the night, I wanted him to get used to pitching in these kinds of situations. He responds well to that kind of information or motivation.
"When I went out to the mound, I could tell he was a little bit spent but OK. I thought it was OK to give him those 10 extra pitches."
Kazmir didn't have to deal with Boston's big guns. Manny Ramírez and David Ortiz were both sidelined, although Ortiz made a pinch-hit appearance in the ninth. But Kazmir has had success against both. The two are a combined 11 for 73 against Kazmir (.143), with each having a homer.
"It was nice to see Big Papi out of the lineup," said Kazmir. "I felt like I had everything working. I felt like my changeup was working and also my slider. Normally it's one or the other. It was nice to have those two pitches I could go to, even behind in the count."
Teammates came through with just enough offense, and even though the Devil Rays are only 61-83, Kazmir is optimistic they're moving in the right direction.
"I kind of felt like we were a different team ever since the All-Star break," said Kazmir. "We have a lot of different names, a lot of different guys here now. You just see what we can do now.
"Our bullpen is very good right now. That's one of the steps we need to be a winning ball club. I think we always had the confidence. Now we're all developing a little bit more.
"We're all young guys and we're going to get better as time goes on."