Kennedy slurves notice

Pitchers usually don't find career salvation in Colorado, but Joe Kennedy has after harnessing his command.

Originally Published: May 25, 2004
By Alan Schwarz | Special to ESPN.com

The Reds' hitters just kept going down, like ducks at a carnival shooting booth.

Joe Kennedy
Colorado's Joe Kennedy shows his funky, but effective, delivery.

Bing! Sean Casey whiffs on outside slider.

Bang! Ken Griffey watches slurve break right over plate for called strike three.

Bong! Austin Kearns stands helpless against backdoor slurve, same result.

Bling! Adam Dunn takes another slurve for third straight backward K.

Four consecutive batters, four consecutive strikeouts, all on left-handed breaking balls curving every which way into the strike zone. Most remarkable was that the author of this performance was not Tom Glavine, who spun a one-hitter on Sunday. It was not Jamie Moyer or another veteran southpaw who always controls pitches like a marionette.

It was the Rockies' Joe Kennedy, a Tampa Bay castoff who, despite his eventual 3-1 loss to Cincinnati last Thursday night, showed amazing command and why he might be the National League's most surprising pitcher of the season.

"He was lights out. He was electric," Colorado manager Clint Hurdle said the next day. "I told people afterward, 'That's as good a breaking ball as I've seen for anyone in a Rockies uniform since I've been here.' "

Raved pitching coach Bob Apodaca: "I could see a young pitcher growing. Not only did he have a basic outline of what he wanted to do, but he saw what hitters could and couldn't do by their swings and then counteracted it. I'm not saying he's the finished product. But it was very exciting to watch him round into a real pitcher."

Kennedy, who turned 25 on Monday, has been as real as the Rockies could have hoped, and more. After nine starts with the club, he stands 4-2 with a 2.82 ERA. Kennedy has thrived at Coors Field (3-1, 2.97), yielding only a hit an inning with wins over the Dodgers, 7-1, and the Astros, 4-1. Moreover, in doing this he has stayed quite efficient for a young pitcher, minimizing his walks and turning over lineups quickly.

Even while losing to the Reds last Thursday, Kennedy was masterful, giving up all three runs in one inning (the sixth) thanks to his own throwing error, a sacrifice fly, a groundball single and the like. Otherwise he was a dominant, purposeful presence, losing only because his opposing pitcher -- another born-again National Leaguer, Paul Wilson -- was just a little better.

Just what has gotten into Kennedy? Actually, it's more about what Kennedy has gotten out of -- specifically, a Devil Rays uniform.

Perhaps you recall that this is, at least carbonically, the same Joe Kennedy who was Tampa Bay's Opening Day starter just one year ago -- a promising, 23-year-old left-hander around whom the club could build. Only he collapsed. Kennedy got batted about by the Red Sox and Yankees in his first four starts, and soon after twirling a one-hit shutout over Triple-A Detroit on May 2, lost nine straight starts along with his confidence and rotation spot.

"I've never really been a loser, and it's something I didn't know how to deal with," said Kennedy, who finished the season in middle relief with a 3-12, 6.13 overall record. "In a lot of those games, I lost, but I'd throw three or four good innings. But one inning I'd give up five or six runs. If something happened, I'd be like, 'Here we go again,' instead of, 'I can get out of this.' I was always thinking negatively. It was, 'Here we go again, another six runs, another loss.' "

Struggling youngsters and Lou Piniella don't mix very well, so Tampa Bay decided to cut its ties with Kennedy after his poor season. (This is the same club which also cast aside Steve Trachsel, Paul Wilson and Jose Guillen.) The Devil Rays dealt him in a three-way swap in which Toronto sent them iffy starter Mark Hendrickson and Colorado sent the Blue Jays reliever Justin Speier. Colorado's end result was turning a non-tender candidate (Speier) into a troubled but young left-hander (Kennedy).

" His job is to make strikes look like balls and balls look like strikes. "
--Rockies pitching coach Bob Apodaca

Kennedy celebrated the trade by proposing to his girlfriend that same day -- he and Jami were married on Jan. 31 -- and embracing what he calls "a fresh start." Apodaca took a special interest in Kennedy as raw material in spring training. He looked past the funky delivery, in which Kennedy slings the ball at a low three-quarters angle across his body, to the solid three-pitch arsenal shooting from it: low-90s fastball, changeup and a slider that moves more like a curve when he takes a little off.

Apodaca found Kennedy pitching somewhat backward, throwing his two-seamer and changeup inside to righties -- rather than letting them break away on glove side, then using the slurve to come in on hitters' hands and knees. "His job is to make strikes look like balls and balls look like strikes," Apodaca said. Against the Reds last Thursday, a remarkable number of Kennedy's pitches were strikes, particularly that slurve, which he threw with command at every point in the count.

(For what it's worth, Kennedy reminds some folks of a young Danny Jackson. But Jackson came more over the top, so Apocada is more inclined toward Ken Holtzman, the early '70s star with the Cubs and A's who also threw hard across his body with command and a good breaking ball.)

It's only nine starts, Kennedy knows, and the Rockies must take a wait-and-see approach to their latest find. But after being teased in recent years by the temporary effectiveness of youngsters Jason Jennings and Denny Stark, at least Kennedy enjoys pitching at Coors Field. Especially after incubating inside Tampa's dreary dome.

"Coors Field is more fun. The fans are more into the game," Kennedy said. "It's a beautiful park. The pond in center field, I like to just go out there and look at it, and watch the waterfall. It's kind of a peaceful place to play."

As for inner peace, Kennedy has found more of that as well. Some comes from the turnaround on the field. Much of it rather derives from his life off it, where Jami -- whom he met only one year ago next week -- leaves him more grounded and able to withstand the rough outings, which are now remarkably rare.

"My wife likes to think it's all her," Kennedy said with a laugh. "But she seems to forget that she was 0-9 last year. I keep telling her she still has to get back to .500."

Alan Schwarz is the senior writer of Baseball America and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. His first book, "The Numbers Game: Baseball's Lifelong Fascination With Statistics," will be published by St. Martin's Press in July.

Alan Schwarz is the senior writer for Baseball America. His book, "The Numbers Game: Baseball's Lifelong Fascination With Statistics," can be ordered on his website, www.alanschwarz.com.