CLEVELAND -- Scott Kazmir was a member of the Rays when they occupied the American League East cellar, and he was there when Tampa Bay transformed into a yearly contender. The Indians pitcher sees similarities within Cleveland's clubhouse this season.
"Yeah, I think so," Kazmir said. "We kind of have that loose, free-and-easy attitude. That's something that you can't teach, the kind of chemistry that we have in the clubhouse. I knew we were on to something. Just the way everyone goes about their business, it's great to be at the ballpark, great to be in the clubhouse."
Kazmir was a leader for Tampa Bay's pitching staff in 2007, when the team lost 96 games in its second season with manager Joe Maddon at the helm. A year later, the Rays ran to 97 victories, enjoyed a couple of champagne celebrations in the postseason and ultimately fell short against the Phillies in the World Series.
Cleveland lost 94 games last season and brought in manager Terry Francona before this year in an effort to change the culture on and off the field. Entering Sunday's game with the Astros, the Indians had possession of the second American League Wild Card spot with one week left to secure a spot in the playoffs.
As it happens, it is the Rays who currently hold the top Wild Card seed.
Kazmir -- out of affiliated baseball last season -- signed a Minor League contract with the club prior to Spring Training as a way to hopefully revive his career more than anything. When the left-hander arrived to camp with the club, however, he soon saw a mix of players that he felt had the makings of a contending team.
"Definitely," Kazmir said. "I felt like we had something special right from the get-go, as soon as I got there. It was a matter of when we were going to put everything together. It seems like things started clicking early on, and look where we're at now."
With new role in mind, Masterson throws sim game
CLEVELAND -- With the Indians eyeing a spot in the postseason, Justin Masterson is not overly concerned with how he returns to the pitching staff. The big right-hander is just thankful for feeling healthy, and he is eager to return in any way possible, as soon as possible.
"I'm just excited to get back in a game," said Masterson, who is coming back from a strained left oblique. "However that comes, that one-inning situation, whatever it may be, critical or non-critical. Just getting back in the game, get the feet wet for this playoff run, and then hopefully a playoff run, that would be pretty exciting."
Following Sunday's 9-2 victory over the Astros, which pushed the Indians 1 1/2 games ahead of the Rangers for the American League's second Wild Card spot, Masterson completed a one-inning simulated game on the mound at Progressive Field. The righty worked through 26 pitches, added two pick-off moves and did some fielding drills.
Bullpen coach Kevin Cash stood in the batter's box to simulate a batter -- shifting between the right and left side -- but did not swing. Masterson threw all his pitches during the workout, which was monitored by manager Terry Francona, general manager Chris Antonetti and members of the medical staff, among others.
Indians pitching coach Mickey Callaway appeared pleased with how Masterson looked throughout the workout.
"I thought it was really good," Callaway said. "The intensity was really good -- game speed. His command was pretty good for the first time out there. He looked good. We were a little worried about doing pickoffs and stuff like that. That's kind of a tough one with his injury, but he looked good and wasn't protecting against that. He's healthy."
Masterson echoed that evaluation.
"I was good," the pitcher said. "The arm felt great."
Masterson -- an All-Star for the first time this season -- is 14-10 with a 3.52 ERA in 189 1/3 innings (29 starts). In an outing against the Orioles on Sept. 2, the right-hander exited after facing five batters because of pain in his left side. Masterson resumed throwing Sept. 12 and has not experienced any setbacks since increasing the intensity of his workouts.
Callaway indicated that, barring any unforeseen issues, Masterson could appear in relief against the White Sox on Wednesday, when Indians right-hander Danny Salazar is scheduled to start. Cleveland's pitching coach said the idea was to use Masterson in a true relief role for the rest of the season and then, if the team makes the playoffs, the Indians would revisit potentially building his innings in preparation to start.
The goal over the final six games is not to stretch Masterson out.
"No, it's, 'Come out and get some big outs when we need them,'" Callaway said.
Kazmir joins Tribe's growing 150 K club
CLEVELAND -- J.D. Martinez swung and missed against a changeup from Indians lefty Scott Kazmir on Saturday night, heading back to the visitors' dugout without his bat. He flailed, lost his grip and flung the strip of lumber beyond the camera well down the third-base line.
It was an emphatic strikeout that ended the seventh inning and helped Cleveland extend a franchise record.
Entering Sunday's game against Houston, the Indians' pitching staff had piled up 1,291 strikeouts, marking the most in a single season in franchise history. Kazmir's 10 punchouts Saturday against the Astros also gave the Tribe three pitchers with at least 150 strikeouts, tying a club record.
"They've done a good job," Indians pitching coach Mickey Callaway said. "The overall approach is just to get ahead. The more times you get ahead, the more times you're going to strike guys out. That's the approach we've taken. Maybe look for a ground ball early and then, once you get ahead, then you have a chance to punch a guy out."
Justin Masterson (188), Ubaldo Jimenez (174) and Kazmir (151) represent the fourth trio in club history to have at least 150 strikeouts apiece. Cleveland also accomplished the feat in 2000 (Dave Burba, Bartolo Colon, Chuck Finley), 1966 (Gary Bell, Sam McDowell, Sonny Siebert) and 1965 (McDowell, Siebert, Luis Tiant).
Prior to this season, the club record for strikeouts in one year by a pitching staff was 1,218 in 2001.
"If you go up there trying to strike guys out from pitch one," Callaway said, "that doesn't usually lead to success. What we've done the best as far as getting strikeouts is we've kind of let them come to us, instead of just trying to strike them out from pitch one."
The Indians entered Sunday's action tied for first in the American League in percentage of 0-2 counts (26 percent) and in called strikeouts (323). Compared with last season, Cleveland has shown improvement in overall strike percentage, called strikes, swinging strikes, first-pitch strikes and 0-2 count percentage.
In Spring Training this year, Callaway posted the team leaders in first-pitch strikes and strikes on 1-1 counts on a daily basis. It was a way to emphasize early on the importance of getting ahead.
"We tried to stress that from Day 1; that was our main goal," Callaway said ."Teams that throw a lot of 0-0 and 1-1 strikes, the top seven or eight teams that lead that every year, have a good chance of getting to the playoffs."
Quote to note
"It's unbelievable. He's gone through some really good stretches where he's pretty much unhittable. Two years away from the game like that, to come back and do what he's done is pretty remarkable." --Indians reliever Cody Allen, on starter Kazmir
• Indians utility man Ryan Raburn, who has been dealing with leg and foot issues for the past few months, received a cortisone shot in his left ankle Saturday night. Raburn was in the starting lineup Sunday as the Tribe's right fielder after hitting .304 with eight home runs and 32 RBIs in his past 33 games for Cleveland.
• Cleveland (85-70) entered Sunday with 17 more wins than it tallied in 2012, marking the largest year-to-year improvement since an 18-game spike from 2006 to '07. Ignoring the strike-shortened '94 campaign, Cleveland has a shot at its largest improvement since a 19-win jump from '91 to '92.
• With Sunday's 9-2 victory, the Indians secured their sixth four-game sweep of the season. They tied the team record of six four-game sweeps from 1954. No team in baseball had posted six four-game sweeps in one tour since the 1961 Yankees.