Royals’ Ian Kennedy walks down memory lane amidst talk of potential bullpen move

Royals’ Yost wants to see the young guys play and learn to win

Kansas City Royals manager Ned Yost is wanting the young guys on the team to see more playing time, in different positions, for the rest of the 2018 season.
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Kansas City Royals manager Ned Yost is wanting the young guys on the team to see more playing time, in different positions, for the rest of the 2018 season.

The moment included shock and disbelief along with perhaps an inkling of fear followed by an adrenaline rush the likes of which he hadn’t felt in years, as well as a period of time where Ian Kennedy couldn’t feel either of his legs. The memory remains very vivid in Kennedy’s mind almost 10 years later.

The recollection Kennedy shared while in a mostly empty clubhouse at the Royals facility in Arizona wasn’t of a car accident or an encounter with a wild animal. No, Kennedy had merely conveyed the sights, sounds and feelings of his most recent relief pitching performance. It came during his time as a member of the New York Yankees in 2009.

That appearance out of the bullpen — one of two in Kennedy’s major-league career — came up because the Royals openly acknowledged that they’ve tossed around the idea of him being a bullpen option, one of the the numerous potential machinations the club is considering with this year’s roster.

“As a starter I have a long time to warm up. No, I was like bwoof, working fast,” Kennedy recalled reenacting his rushed motions and demeanor. “I’m like, ‘I’m ready.’ They were like, ‘You’re ready?’ Yeah, my adrenaline was going. All your routine goes out the door.”

Late September during an eventual World Series championship run by the Yankees, Kennedy settled into a break-glass-in-case-of-emergency role in the bullpen as he worked his way back early that summer from surgery to remove an aneurysm. As far as he was concerned, he might as well have been part of the furniture — just there in the background filling up space.

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A.J. Burnett mowed down Angels in Anaheim. He struck out 11 in 5 2/3 innings en route to his 12th win of the season for the Yankees. Meanwhile, Kennedy’s primary purpose came as the piggy-back starter to Yankees flame-throwing young hurler Joba Chamberlain.

Except the piggy-back scenario never materialized. Kennedy spent part of his time in the bullpen throwing live batting practice in preparation for a trip to the Arizona Fall League.

“It was 3-2. I was like, ‘Pshh, I ain’t going in this game.’ It’s the eighth inning. Mariano (Rivera) is going to close this,” Kennedy thought. “That year, Phil Hughes was the set-up guy, but they gave him the day off because I think he threw three of four days or whatever. So they gave him a day off.

“I’m sitting there, and I’m like they have Brian Bruney, they have all these other guys that have been in the bullpen all year. I didn’t even hear the phone ring. They were like, ‘Ian!’ I’m like, ‘WHAT?’”

Kennedy got a line-out, hit a batter and walked another before he struck out Maicer Izturis. He then walked another batter to load the bases before he induced Erick Aybar into an inning-ending fly-out to center field. Kennedy got the hold for one nerve-racking scoreless inning.

When Yankees pitching coach Dave Eiland came out to the mound to check in with Kennedy with two on and one out, the then-24-year-old pitcher told him he couldn’t feel his legs. The two had a chance to chat about that moment later.

“He was like do you remember saying that to me, and I was like, ‘Oh yeah. Because I felt like it was my debut all over again.’”

And Eiland’s advice at the time?

As Kennedy recalled, Eiland told him, “’Well, start feeling them again. Let’s go!’”

That all seems like a baseball lifetime ago considering Kennedy has made 277 starts in the majors since that day, including all 85 of his appearances in a Royals uniform.

An oblique injury largely derailed him last season and a hamstring/groin injury hampered him in 2017. However, he and team physical therapist Jeff Blum made slight adjustments to Kennedy’s offseason training in effort to correct that.

When a reporter asked Kennedy the question during the offseason, that was the first time Kennedy heard anything about a potential bullpen move. He talked to Royals pitching coach Cal Eldred and general manager Dayton Moore two weeks ago, and he “finally heard it from their mouths” that it was a possibility, but was far from decided.

The Royals would likely have to feel very strong about the performances of their other starting-pitching options as well as their depth — keeping in mind Eric Skoglund will serve an 80-game suspension — to seriously consider moving Kennedy. Even then, they’d likely want him and his experience to fill a need in high-pressure situations as opposed to long relief.

Kennedy bluntly said being a mop-up guy or having an ever-changing role wouldn’t appeal to him, particularly if he pitched well throughout spring training. High-leverage situations with the game hanging in the balance? That’s different.

“If it helps us win — and you can ask any of us that are competing for a job in the rotation we’d rather have a spot — but if they want me to be back there at the end of the games or (Heath) Fillmyer or (Jorge Lopez) or whoever is going to be back there, meaningful innings is (what you want), and as long as we’re winning that’s what we’re here for,” Kennedy said.

Kennedy isn’t oblivious to the fact that the Royals have had a track record of success with starting pitchers converting to the bullpen. He pointed to the success Moore has had making similar moves in the past. Luke Hochaver became a critical part of the bullpen in 2015. Wade Davis’ transition proved pivotal during the World Series runs. Current reliever Wily Peralta, who went 14 for 14 on save chances last season, started almost exclusively his first five big-league seasons.

“They really changed baseball where now teams are built in that bullpen and the back to shorten games up,” Kennedy said of the Royals’ bullpens in 2014 and 2015. “That’s what we talked about. That’s one of the things when they were good — they had guys back there. That’s partially why we lost a lot of games last year, because we weren’t able to hold a lot of those games together.”

Royals manager Ned Yost sought to temper any discussion of Kennedy moving to the bullpen because “we don’t know where we’re going to go.” However, he did explain that the considerations went beyond Kennedy’s record (19-33 in 3 years with the Royals).

“He can pitch up in the zone,” Yost said. “He’s a guy that can strike guys out with his fastball. He’s a guy that we think that type of workload might keep him healthier than he has (been) in the past. Ian’s really been the beneficiary of some poor run support for us in the last two years when he was healthy. I mean, I think that his win-loss record would have been a lot better if we could have just scored some runs for him.

“He’s a guy that you kind of look at like we did at Luke Hochaver, Wade Davis. Their stuff is still really, really good, but when they get into a position where they can come in for one inning there stuff is going to jump up a half a grade or maybe even more.”

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Lynn Worthy covers the Kansas City Royals and Major League Baseball for The Star. A native of the Northeast, he’s covered high school, collegiate and professional sports for The Lowell Sun, Binghamton Press & Sun-Bulletin, Allentown Morning Call and The Salt Lake Tribune. He’s won awards for sports features and sports columns.