Scott Kazmir was almost recognizable at the end of the podium at Yokohama Stadium on Wednesday, his long hair flowing out from under his U.S. baseball cap. He had just pitched in his biggest game in years, well before he opted for the locks, helping keep the United States’ gold medal chances in baseball alive in a 3-1 win over the Dominican Republic.
That he was sitting there at all was inconceivable just months ago.
Kazmir’s baseball future was murky two months ago. The left-hander had completed an improbable comeback to the major leagues with the San Francisco Giants after a five-year hiatus. In his debut, the three-time All-Star limited the Dodgers — the club still paying him $8 million this year for a contract he signed in December 2015 — to one run over four innings at Oracle Park.
But his Giants stint lasted just three appearances over two weeks. He was designated for assignment after returning from a personal leave to mourn his best friend’s death. He was a 37-year-old pitcher without a team again. Then Team USA called.
“He fell in our lap,” U.S. manager Mike Scioscia said. “He got designated for assignment at the right time when we were about to make some decisions and put our club together. And as soon as he fell in our lap, I was thinking, ‘Man, we don’t need to look any further. Let’s go. Let’s round out our staff.’ We knew he could do what he did today.”
What he did Wednesday was post five scoreless innings to move the Americans within two wins of a gold medal. The U.S. will next play South Korea on Thursday for a chance to play in Saturday’s gold medal game. The Dominicans will play for bronze Saturday against Thursday’s loser.
Kazmir struck out five and walked one. He encountered his biggest predicament in the first inning when the Dominicans loaded the bases with one out. He escaped by getting Johan Mieses and Melky Cabrera to ground into fielder’s choices.
First baseman Triston Casas then smashed a two-run home run off right-hander Denyi Reyes, a fellow Red Sox minor leaguer, in the bottom of the frame. It was the top Boston Red Sox prospect’s third home run in four tournament games. Tyler Austin clubbed a solo shot in the fifth to pad the Americans' slim lead.
Former major-league veteran David Robertson gave up a solo home run to Charlie Valerio in the ninth inning before getting the save.
Minnesota Twins prospect Joe Ryan will make the start for the Americans on Thursday after giving up one run over six innings against Israel in the Americans’ tournament opener. Kazmir won’t be available to pitch in relief until Saturday — in either the gold or bronze medal game.
If he does appear again, he doesn’t expect it to be the end. He wants to continue pitching, to have his two little boys watch him pitch in person, not in videos, almost two decades after his debut as a 20-year-old top prospect. On Wednesday, he was, by chance, the shaggy veteran keeping his country’s chances for its first Olympic gold in baseball since 2000 alive.
“This is a huge experience, a huge honor to represent my country,” Kazmir said. “But as far as my development, I feel like there’s still a long way to go.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.