Kazmir latest Angels pitcher to struggle

NEW YORK -- The worst place to miss for a major league pitcher isn't in the dirt or over the catcher's head or 2 feet outside or all the way to the backstop.

The worst thing you can do is throw the ball right down the middle.

For a lot of Thursday night, it looked as if Scott Kazmir was trying to hit the bull's-eye in the heart of the strike zone. And if you're going to do that, don't do it to the New York Yankees. Kazmir had a miserable four innings Thursday in which he gave up three home runs in the Angels' 6-2 loss at Yankee Stadium.

Kazmir's woes -- he has been on a yearlong quest to regain the nasty slider that once made him a dominant young pitcher -- adds to a lengthy list of pitching problems for the Angels. It's really no wonder they're 3-7 -- their worst start since 2002 -- when you consider their starting pitchers have given up 14 home runs in 10 games.

The Angels, meanwhile, have hit five home runs off their opponents' starters.

"The heartbeat of our club is our starting pitching and we need these guys to start getting deep into games, to start pitching effectively deep into games, and things will start to fall in place," Angels manager Mike Scioscia said.

Three things fell into one particular place -- the right-center-field stands -- when Kazmir served up long balls to Robinson Cano (twice) and Derek Jeter on Thursday.

The Angels would be thrilled if they could turn Kazmir back into the guy who used a trio of good pitches to emerge as one of the toughest pitchers in baseball when he was just 21. From 2005 to 2008, Kazmir posted double-digit wins every season, mostly for bad teams, and his ERA was under 3.50 all but one of those years.

Since then, Kazmir has been searching in vain for his slider. He had it warming up Thursday, but then it went scampering off somewhere. That seems to be typical of the wayward pitch these days.

Does he need it? After all, he had a 1.73 ERA in six starts with the Angels last year working primarily with his fastball and changeup.

"Of course, if I want to be dominant like I know I'm capable of doing," Kazmir said. "It's been a while since I've had all three pitches working. Me being able to work the changeup a lot more and getting comfortable with it has gotten me by. It's real frustrating. When you've got a hitter all set up for a good slider -- or even a decent one. ... I just don't have it."

As if the loss of a pitch wasn't bothersome enough, Kazmir's velocity sagged as the game went along. Catcher Mike Napoli noticed a mechanical flaw, too. This is a guy with a lot going on after only one start. Kazmir started the season on the disabled list because of minor shoulder and hamstring ailments, so Thursday was his season debut.

"You've got to just go out there and drive it in there," Napoli said. "His arm was a little behind him and he got it out over the middle of the plate."

If you're a pitcher, there aren't many worse places to be than the middle of the plate.

Scene and heard

It might have looked like just another guy jogging in to pitch a mop-up inning, but it was one of the biggest moments of Francisco Rodriguez's life. The Angels' newest pitcher, called up the day before, made his major league debut in front of more than 40,000 fans at Yankee Stadium.

"I don't have words to say what I was feeling out there," Rodriguez said. "Probably, I'm still shaking right now."

Rodriguez mowed down Jeter, Nick Swisher and Mark Teixeira in a 1-2-3 inning. Teixeira struck out swinging. It was a pretty good first step for the 27-year-old from Mexicali, Mexico. The Angels signed him as a 22-year-old free agent in 2002.

"I was a little nervous. The thing is here, if you can control that or not," Rodriguez said. "I feel like I did pretty good."

Lost in the shuffle

Kazmir couldn't have been too excited when he saw umpire Jerry Layne was behind the plate. Kazmir seemed a bit exasperated the last time he was on the mound, in a Game 4 blowout loss to the Yankees in the ALCS last October.

Layne was behind the plate that night, too, and the Angels spent a large chunk of that game questioning his strike zone.

"That's something I didn't think about at all," Kazmir said Thursday.

The Angels probably will tread lightly on that topic. Pitcher Ervin Santana told ESPNLosAngeles.com on Wednesday that umpires favor the Yankees and Red Sox. That comment doesn't figure to buy Santana many calls in the future.

Quote of the day

"What came first, the chicken or the egg? They haven't given these guys some runs to work with early and these pitchers haven't put up enough zeroes to get us deep in the game and set up some offense." -- Scioscia.

Look ahead

The Angels had to pull out their passports when they boarded their plane Thursday night. They're headed to Toronto, a place where they traditionally struggle. The Blue Jays are off to a surprising 7-3 start.

The Angels at least have their No. 1 starter, Jered Weaver, on the mound Friday, although he's matched against Toronto's No. 1, Shaun Marcum. Weaver likes facing the Jays. He's 5-1 with a 3.00 ERA against them in his career and has given up only four earned runs in his last three starts against them.

Making his first start in two years, Marcum carried a no-hitter into the seventh inning before losing to the Texas Rangers on Opening Day. Marcum had reconstructive elbow surgery after the 2008 season.

Mark Saxon covers the Angels for ESPNLosAngeles.com.