In critical condition, Rays counting on Kazmir

10/27/2008 - MLB Scott Kazmir Tampa Bay Rays + more

PHILADELPHIA -- There are many reasons the Tampa Bay Rays are in a 3-1 hole in the World Series. But finding blame has never been Scott Kazmir's style, and it won't do him any good Monday night.

Instead, it will be Kazmir's job to clean up the mess, to trim the deficit, to extend the Rays' magical season at least one more game. Kazmir will try to pitch his team back into the World Series and stave off elimination against a Phillies team that is countering with one of the best left-handers in the game.

"I want the ball. Definitely," Kazmir said. "It's going to be a tough game. They've got their best guy out there, and we feel like it's do-or-die for us."

Their best guy is Cole Hamels. He's 24 years old -- just like Kazmir -- and he's been spectacular this postseason. So dominant, in fact, that most people probably don't realize that Kazmir was actually drafted ahead of Hamels in 2002; Kazmir went 15th overall to the Mets, while the Phillies took Hamels two spots later.

Yet on Sunday afternoon, when Kazmir met with the media, the very first question he was asked was about Hamels.

"Every pitch he throws, [it] looks like he's on point right now," Kazmir said graciously. "So it feels like every pitch you throw is going to be a crucial pitch. You feel like you want to throw up zeros. And if you don't, it's going to be tough to get a win."

After Sunday's game, though, Kazmir admitted he feels like he constantly has to answer questions about Hamels, who also pitched against him in Game 1.

"It feels like it's been like that for a while now; it is what it is," said Kazmir, who is 1-1 this postseason with a 4.15 ERA and a .259 batting average against.

One could not blame Kazmir for feeling the pressure. After all, the Rays are hitting just .187 in this series, and their No. 3 and No. 4 hitters -- Carlos Pena and Evan Longoria -- have combined to go 0-for-29 with 15 strikeouts. Heading into Game 3, the combo already set the dubious mark of being the first No. 3-4 hitters to go hitless in their first three World Series games. And then they went out and failed to get a hit again Sunday in seven combined at-bats.

"We've had our struggles this series," Longoria said. "Fortunately for us, we've got one more game to break out of it."

Then Longoria corrected himself, realizing he probably should not predict this series could be over by Monday.

"Actually," he added, "we've got three more games. We have to change something, and I'm hoping that adjustment comes [on Monday]."

So they'll turn to Kazmir, who has endured the franchise's losing seasons, dysfunction and hopelessness. He is the youngest member of the Rays' starting rotation, yet is the franchise's all-time leader in wins (47), innings pitched (723.0), strikeouts (783), starts (124) and ERA (3.61). He has carved out his own legacy in the four years since coming to Tampa Bay from the Mets in exchange for Victor Zambrano, one of the most lopsided trades in major league history.

Yet some think Kazmir might be hurt. He missed the first month of the season with a left elbow strain. While he has always had a good fastball, this season he's rarely used his slider -- a pitch he used to throw with frequency. According to Inside Edge, he has thrown the slider 12 percent of the time this season. He's come back to the pitch more recently, but when asked about it on Sunday, Kazmir still didn't sound overly confident.

"It felt like last game … I was getting a little better feel for [the slider]," he said. "And just a little more comfortable as the game was going on." In the Game 1 loss against Hamels, Kazmir gave up three runs in six innings.

Even if Kazmir isn't 100 percent, even if his teammates are unable to hit, even if he could have every excuse in the world, he would never use them. He'll leave his arm on the Citizens Bank Park mound if he has to Monday night. But unfortunately, even that might not be enough for these Rays.

Amy K. Nelson is a staff writer for ESPN.com. She can be reached via e-mail at amy.k.nelson@espn3.com.