Kazmir ready for challenge in opener

Big challenge awaits Kazmir in season opener

If Scott Kazmir is pitching, the Devil Rays' chances of winning are greatly enhanced.

So the possibility of the Rays starting the season with an Opening Day victory are very real given the fact the 23-year-old left-hander is starting.

"It's an honor to pitch the first game, Opening Day," Kazmir said. "Me and [manager] Joe [Maddon] actually talked about it before this, so it wasn't a complete surprise. I'm just happy that everything is going OK. I'm healthy and I'm looking forward to Opening Day."

Having the opener at Yankee Stadium only adds to the thrill of being the Opening Day starter.

"I mean, it's an historic park," Kazmir said. "Playing against the Yankees. What more can you ask for? It's going to be exciting. The adrenaline is definitely going to be there."

Kazmir has produced a nice body of work heading into his fourth Major League season.

He is one of only five pitchers (and the second left-hander) in the last 20 years to post a winning record with 10-plus wins in two seasons before the age of 23. Ready for the others? Try Pedro Martinez, Tom Gordon, Dwight Gooden, and C.C. Sabathia. Not bad company, huh?

In addition, Kazmir has racked up a club record 378 career strikeouts, 13th most all-time among southpaws under the age of 23; only 17 left-handers have reached 500 strikeouts by the age of 24.

opening day 2007

Perhaps most impressive when it comes to Kazmir is how much growth he has shown. When Kazmir takes the mound, his teammates feel like they will win. This is an important mind-set given the fact the organization is striving to change a losing culture during its short history.

Anybody unfamiliar with Kazmir need only flash back to July 3, 2006, to see how good he can be. He started against the Red Sox at Tropicana Field that day and two hours and 20 minutes later he had his first complete-game shutout. And it was a beauty in which he allowed just two hits and two walks while striking out 10.

"That day, he found a new changeup and that really gave him a lot of confidence and he used it very effectively," remembered Josh Paul, who caught Kazmir that day.

Unfortunately for Kazmir and the Rays, the win against the Red Sox was his last of the 2006 season. He only made six more starts and, despite pitching to a 3.06 ERA, he was 0-3 the rest of the way while the Rays scored 13 runs in his six starts. During that period, shoulder problems interrupted what had appeared to be a special season.

  Devil Rays probable lineup
1.LFCarl Crawford
2.SSBen Zobrist
3.DHRocco Baldelli
4.1BTy Wigginton
5.RFDelmon Young
6.3BAkinori Iwamura
7.CDioner Navarro
8.CFElijah Dukes
9.2BB.J. Upton

Kazmir went on the disabled list from July 24 to Aug. 11 with shoulder inflammation. He returned for two more starts, but was shelved for the final six weeks of the season as a precaution.

At the time Kazmir was sidelined, he was leading the Major Leagues (among qualifiers) with a 10.1 strikeouts per nine innings pitched ratio. Despite missing his last eight starts of the season, he still finished 12th in the American League in strikeouts while posting a 10-8 record with a 3.24 ERA.

Any questions the Rays might have had about Kazmir's shoulder have been answered this spring. He has pitched pain-free since the beginning of Spring Training and his performance has improved every outing.

Kazmir said he has experienced a nice spring given the way everything has played out.

"It's unbelievable," Kazmir said. "Just having a clear mind now. Knowing that I've done everything that I could. I'll be prepared for Opening Day. I'll be prepared for the season. I'm looking forward to it."

Kazmir said he was never really concerned about his shoulder, even last summer.

"In my mind, never," Kazmir said. "It just felt like something where maybe if I took a couple of days off it would have been good. We were just cautious and did the right thing."

Maddon could be counted among the cautious last summer, but not anymore. He's convinced Kazmir is more than ready for the season.

"I'm not concerned, I mean this guy is good," Maddon said. "You have to look at the previous year to really understand what he's going to do this year. I've got no concerns about him whatsoever."

All Kazmir needs to concern himself with at the moment are the Yankees. But don't look for a prediction about the Opening Day outcome.

"No predictions," Kazmir said. "I just want to go out there and keep our team in the game. I know the adrenaline is going to be there. I just have to kind of hone that. It's going to be a fun day to kick off the season. I'm excited. I'm ready. ... You don't have a pulse if you don't have the adrenalin going."

Pitching matchup
TB: LHP Scott Kazmir (10-8, 3.24 ERA in 2006)
Kazmir is feeling well after missing most of the second half of the 2006 season with a stiff shoulder.

NYY: RHP Carl Pavano (0-0, 0.00 in 2006)
Is 3-2 with a 2.92 ERA in five career starts against the Rays.

Players to watch
Carl Crawford has a .302 career average against right-handers.

On the Internet
 Gameday Audio
•  Gameday
•  Official game notes

On television

On radio
• WHNZ 1250, WGES 680 (Espanol)

Up next
• Wednesday: Devil Rays (RHP Jae Seo, 3-12, 5.33) at Yankees (LHP Andy Pettitte, 14-13, 4.20), 1:05 p.m. ET
• Thursday: Devil Rays (RHP James Shields, 6-8, 4.84) at Yankees (RHP Mike Mussina, 15-7, 3.51), 7:05 p.m. ET
• Friday: Blue Jays (TBD) at Devil Rays (LHP Casey Fossum, 6-6, 5.33), 7:10 p.m. ET

Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.