Tucked in a corner of the visitor’s clubhouse during a recent road trip at Target Field in Minnesota, Royals pitcher Ian Kennedy looked up at the television screen with laser focus as Chicago Cubs closer Craig Kimbrel attempted to finish another game in a decorated career as a closer.
Kennedy, 34, spoke of Kimbrel, his one-time teammate with the San Diego Padres, with reverence and admiration. Kennedy holds Kimbrel, three years Kennedy’s junior, in high regard, as he does the role of closer — one of the most pressure-packed positions in professional sports.
While Kennedy doesn’t see himself among the class of closers that includes Kimbrel, he’s in a unique class of pitcher.
Kennedy, who moved to the bullpen this season after having spent his career as a starter, recorded his 20th save on July 28, becoming the sixth pitcher since 1969 (when saves became an official statistic) to compile a 20-win season and a 20-save season, according to Sportsradar.
He joined a group with John Smoltz, Mudcat Grant, Wilbur Wood, Dennis Eckersley and Derek Lowe.
“I think that guys like Kimbrel, there’s a special guy that throws the ninth inning,” Kennedy said between glances at the television. “We’ve seen it where some guys may not be able to handle it well. They throw great in the eighth inning, but they have to learn how to throw the ninth inning. And I don’t know. I just kinda got put into it.”
“To me guys like Craig, he’s worth every bit of what (Aroldis) Chapman and those guys make. They want to devalue the closer, but it is the hardest inning in baseball. Someone like Craig doesn’t come around very often. Watching him do it is like a once-in-a-liftime type of pitcher, I think.”
Suited for the spot
Royals manager Ned Yost pointed to Kennedy’s recent injury history, which included three disabled list stints last two seasons, as the main reason for Kennedy’s move from the starting rotation to the bullpen.
The hope being that the bullpen role and the increased innings load would help keep the 6-foot right-hander healthy.
Last season, Kennedy made 22 starts and went 3-9 with a 4.66 ERA and a 1.379 WHIP.
The Royals transitioned starters such as Luke Hochevar and Wade Davis to relief in the past. Of course, Yost and his staff were taking a leap of faith when it came to how Kennedy would adjust to the pressure of being a closer.
“He’s always been a level-headed kid, and having a chance to watch him pitch as a starter for a couple years, you knew that he’d be able to handle that,” Yost said.
Since the move, Kennedy has stabilized a bullpen comprised largely of inexperienced pitchers and first-time big-leaguers. By being the back-end guy, he’s allowed the others to know “they just have to get the ball to Ian,” as Yost said.
Kennedy entered Sunday’s game in Detroit nine saves since the All-Star break, most in the majors.
Success as a starter
Just two pitchers registered 20 wins last season, Tampa Bay’s Blake Snell and Cleveland’s Corey Kluber.
When Kennedy accomplished the feat with the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2011, he went 21-4 and became one of four men in franchise history to reach that benchmark. The group consists of Hall of Famer Randy Johnson, World Series MVP and six-time All-Star Curt Schilling, former Cy Young Award winner Brandon Webb and Kennedy.
“Now that I look back on it, I really cherish that,” Kennedy said. “I should’ve taken it in a little bit more. During a season, you’re just focused on every single start. At that time we were trying to go for a playoff run. It was us and the Giants, and they were in second. It was always a big series. Dodgers were playing all right. Kind of in the middle of it, you don’t really pay attention. Afterwards, it’s a pretty cool thing to do.”
So many things had to break in Kennedy’s favor during that season, and it produced memorable moments.
The lone shutout of Kennedy’s career came during that season in a pitcher’s duel with the Phillies’ Cliff Lee. Kennedy struck out 10 in nine innings. Lee struck out 12 in seven innings, but he gave up four earned runs.
That all came one day after the birth of his first daughter. The game lasted two hours and four minutes, and his daughter was born at 2:04 a.m.
The Diamondbacks won the National League West, Justin Upton was an MVP candidate and a 23-year-old Paul Goldschmidt made his mark late in the season, while Daniel Hudson (16-12) and Kennedy and anchored the rotation.
“My 20th game, we were winning one-nothing against Pittsburgh. J.J. Putz came in the ninth. I went eight. He went the ninth,” Kennedy said. “First batter was at triple. He even said he was like, ‘Well, sorry Ian. You’ll have to get it next start.’ I had one more start left. But he got a strikeout, a ground ball to first and a strikeout. That’s how we won the game. You need those type of things to happen.”
The closer enters the game with the game hanging in the balance nine times out of 10. Secure the win, and you’ll high-five and shaking hands with everyone, accepting congratulations.
Fail to secure the win as a closer and the weight of the loss falls on your shoulders.
“You’re on the road and the crowd is on their feet because they know it’s within reach because you’re in the game,” Kennedy said. “It’s something that’s totally different. It’s hard to describe. It is on you. That’s what also stinks. When you give it up, you’re like I could’ve ended this game and now the game is continuing or it’s over.”
That double-edged sword is something Kennedy wasn’t entirely ready for but had to come to grips with quickly.
Eckersley, now a color commentator for Red Sox games and analyst for NESN television broadcasts, underwent the transition from starter to closer in 1987 after having won 20 games as a starter for the Red Sox in 1978.
“You don’t think of it as I’m the last man standing,” Eckersley said of the pressure. “I think that’s why (Kennedy) is good for this job. It doesn’t happen very often that a guy has pitched however many years he’s pitched as a starter. He’s been around the block man, this isn’t going to freak you out.”
Eckersley knows the downside of that being the guy with the ball in big moments. He was on the wrong end of one of the most historic home runs in baseball history by Kirk Gibson, who ironically managed Kennedy in Arizona during his 21-win season.
Gibson, hobbled by leg injuries, famously hit a pinch-hit walk-off home run for the Los Angeles Dodgers off Eckersley in Game 1 of the 1988 World Series.
“I’d like to say it’s being fearless, but I played on fear” Eckersley said of closing. “Fear is a major motivator. It takes the adrenaline to another level, if you can control it. It made me better than I was, but it could knock you on your ass. But it could crush some guys.”
The Eckersley mold
Eckersley, a member of the Hall of Fame, went 197-171 with a 3.50 ERA and 390 saves in his career. From 1988 to 1998, he saved 50 games or more once, 40 games or more in a season four times and 30 or more eight times.
“He seems like out of my mold a little bit,” Eckersley said of Kennedy. “It’s funny how guys just kind of find their way and it’s meant to be. He was right in the right position for this, and (crap) we might be talking about him three years from now, 40 pops a year. You don’t want to get carried away, but you know he’s going to be there the next year. Finally, he can start a year saying this is what you’re going to be.”
Eckersley is the only pitcher to win 175 games and save 350 games along the way to six All-Star honors, a Cy Young Award and an American League MVP. After one year as a reliever, he actually wanted to go back to starting. “What an idiot,” he said thinking back.
“At some point starting, the (crap) is going to go south,” Eckersley said. “It’s inevitable. Then for me, I had to face left-handed lineups starting and they’re going to get you. Next thing you know, coming out of the bullpen I was facing a lot more right-handed hitters. Sometimes it didn’t set-up like that, but for the most part. I didn’t have to get out eight left-handed hitters. I’d have to get out one.”
Eckersley credited two big factors in his 20-win season with the Red Sox.
First, his team had offensive firepower, including Jim Rice, Fred Lynn, Dwight Evans and Carlton Fisk. Eckersley could give up two runs in the first and have a 4-2 lead by the time he stepped on the mound in the second. Second, he pitched in an era when starters were still allowed to go seven or eight innings most nights, so he got the decision in 28 of 35 starts.
From 1975 through 1986, Eckersley threw 2,496 innings before becoming a full-time reliever and throwing 789 2/3 more innings. Kennedy had thrown 1,704 innings prior prior to this season. He’s thrown 46 1/3 innings this season out of the bullpen.
“I had good stuff for about six year, and then the innings catch up with you,” Eckersley said. “That’s where you turn into a pumpkin, I used to say 1,500 innings and somethings going to go wrong unless you’re really managed the right way, like they do now.
“But then you get to 2,400 innings and you haven’t got the kind of gas you used to have. You’d be surprised that it can come back at little spurts. That’s what saved my life. I was done if I didn’t go to the bullpen. You go from done to going to the (freaking) Hall of Fame.”