CLEVELAND — The Indians made news by signing a number of high-priced players this offseason, but the cheapest addition has been the best of the bunch.
Left-hander Scott Kazmir, who signed a minor-league contract worth $1 million after failing to log a single inning in the majors last year, offered up another brilliant start for Cleveland, which opened an interleague series against the Mets on Friday night with an 8-1 victory at Progressive Field.
Kazmir (8-7, 4.17 ERA) didn’t allow a run over six innings and struck out a season-high 12 batters to help the Indians to their fourth victory in five games, with Cleveland aiding its cause in the American League wild-card race after entering the night three games behind for the final spot.
“To his credit, he’s worked really hard,” Indians manager Terry Francona said of Kazmir, who allowed just four hits. “He’s real diligent with what he does. It looks like he’s kind of catching his second wind. It’s impressive, and we’re going to need it.”
“I’m his No. 1 fan,” said Nick Swisher, who turned the game into a rout with a grand slam in the eighth inning. “To have a guy like that who was pretty much playing catch in his backyard last year to going out and throwing 95-96 (mph) and really just dominating games, I could not be more happy that we have him over here.”
Kazmir, 29, spent last season pitching out of the independent league for the Sugarland Skeeters. This year, he looks like the Kazmir of old — the one who contended for Cy Young Awards back in the day for the Tampa Bay Rays.
“I just felt great today,” said Kazmir, who hit 95 mph to record his final strikeout. “Getting ahead in every count, I think that was an important part. I was able to expand the zone after that and got some quick outs.
“Getting 12 strikeouts, that’s the most I’ve gotten in a long time. But just being able to go deep into the game and throw up zeroes, I think that was the important thing.”
Kazmir’s career-high strikeout total is 13, coming in 2007 as a member of the Rays. His season-high count came against the team that drafted him in 2002, one spot ahead of Swisher.
“That’s great, but I’m at the point where we’re playing for a playoff spot right now,” Kazmir said. “That’s the one thing that I’m thinking about when I go out to the mound. It’s great that it was against the team that drafted me, but that definitely wasn’t going through my mind.”
Indians hitters gave Kazmir an early cushion with a run apiece in the first two innings off Mets starter Zack Wheeler, who entered the night with a 3.36 ERA over 14 starts.
The game was still in limbo, with the Indians leading by three runs when Swisher connected into the left-field bleachers off Mets reliever Tim Byrdak to put things out of reach.
“Wheeler’s got good stuff. We did some good things,” Francona said. “I thought our guys did a good job of staying in the zone.
“The score when you look (today) is not indicative of what type of game it was.”
Kazmir’s dominant effort started a pivotal stretch of games to complete the regular season for Cleveland, which plays 16 of its final 22 games against clubs with losing records. The potential reward at the end of the string is the Indians’ first postseason trip since 2007.
“It just kind of seems like we’re doing the right things at the right time,” Swisher said. “We’re super, super confident about our chances right now. We’re not out of this.”
Contact Chris Assenheimer at (440) 329-7136 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Fan him on Facebook and follow him on Twitter @CAwes