CLEVELAND - It's a long way from going to spring training as a non-roster player to pitching in big games in September that have playoff implications. But that's the journey Scott Kazmir has made this year.
Saturday night, Kazmir pitched seven scoreless innings on four hits and Michael Brantley homered as the Cleveland Indians kept pace in the American League wild-card race with a 4-1 win over the Houston Astros.
The streaking Indians have won eight of their last 10 games while Houston, which absorbed its 104th loss of the season, has lost eight in a row.
Kazmir (9-9) struck out 10 and walked one. In four starts in the month of September Kazmir is 2-2 with a 2.86 ERA. In 22 innings he has struck out 32 and walked two. Saturday was the 20th 10-strikeout game of Kazmir's career and his third this season.
"He was really good right out of the chute," said Indians manager Terry Francona. "He had a power fastball, with a cutter and a real good changeup. He had a good mix going."
The victory keeps the Indians in the second wild-card spot, a half-game behind wild-card leader Tampa Bay.
"As close as we are, we can almost taste it," Kazmir said. "You want to go out there and give it everything you've got."
The Indians signed Kazmir to a minor league contract last winter, and he won a spot in the starting rotation during spring training.
"I remember the first day we saw him throw in spring training and thinking to myself, boy, if this works, what a find," Francona said. "Now it's September, and he's pitching like this. It's very exciting."
Outfielder Nick Swisher, whose single contributed to a three-run first inning Cleveland rally, said he's been impressed by Kazmir's performance this season.
"He's absolutely doing it," Swisher said. "Hats off to our front office for going out and getting a guy like that."
Kazmir faced the minimum three batters in five of the seven innings he pitched. Indians pitchers have held the Astros to two runs in the first three games of the four-game series.
"You definitely have to tip your hat to Kazmir tonight," Astros manager Bo Porter said. "He had an explosive fastball and did a tremendous job with his breakaway stuff."
The loss went to Houston starter Paul Clemens (5-5), who worked 4 2/3 innings, giving up four runs on eight hits with four strikeouts and three walks.
"Any time you give up a three-spot in the first, it's going to make for a long night and force you to battle the rest of the way," Clemens said.
Cleveland's offense was led by Brantley, who had a home run and two RBI, Michael Bourn, who had two doubles, and Asdrubal Cabrera, who had a double and two singles.
Houston's only run came on a solo home run by Chris Carter off reliever Joe Smith in the ninth inning.
Cleveland took a 3-0 lead against Clemens in the first inning. Bourn led off with a double and went to third on a single by Swisher. Jason Kipnis' sacrifice fly drove in Bourn with the first run of the game.
Clemens retired the next hitter, but Brantley belted a 2-1 pitch into the seats in right field for his ninth home run but his first since Aug. 9. Brantley's homer gave Cleveland a 3-0 lead.
The Indians made it 4-0 with another run in the fourth. Yan Gomes led off the inning with a double and scored on a single by Lonnie Chisenhall.
Kazmir pitched well in the early going. Kazmir gave up a single to Jonathan Villar leading off the game and then retired the next 11 batters in a row.
"Kazmir had good stuff and pretty much kept everybody off balance," Carter said.
NOTES: Houston 1B Chris Carter's 53 RBIs are tied for the third for the most road RBIs in the American League. ... Astros LHP Brett Oberholtzer's 2.14 ERA since July 31 is the second lowest in the American League during that span. ... At the start of play on Saturday, the Indians' record of 48-18 vs. teams with losing records was the best in the majors. ... Bourn's next stolen base will be the 300th of his career.