As a pitcher, Ian Kennedy isn’t a unicorn. Three others, including two Hall of Famers, won 20 games one year and saved 30 another before Kennedy did it, making the achievement exceedingly rare though not quite one of a kind.
But press the new Phillies closer to list a few highlights from 15 seasons in the majors and he has no difficulty narrowing it down.
“My complete game,” he said the other day.
Note the singular form of the word. Kennedy made 289 starts over 12 years for four teams before the Kansas City Royals turned him into a full-time reliever in 2019. But one razor-sharp needle stands out so distinctly from among the haystack that he remembers every detail as if it happened yesterday rather than a decade ago.
Ever since, Kennedy has chased a moment that could top it. Maybe it will come next month. Two weeks ago, the last-place Texas Rangers traded him to the Phillies, thrusting the 36-year-old right-hander into a pennant race for the first time in 10 years. And he’s unashamed to admit he has imagined closing a division-clinching victory at jam-packed Citizens Bank Park.
“Oh my goodness, absolutely,” Kennedy said. “Already just pitching some of these games, you have more adrenaline. There’s a lot more riding on these games than any other game I closed out, whether for Texas or Kansas City. A lot more. The fans know it. I know it. It’s made it a lot more fun.”
If it somehow happens, Kennedy will appreciate the coincidence. Because when he thinks back to everything that happened on April 25, 2011, the Phillies are a central character in the story.
Game of his life
The Phillies were at the peak of their 102-win powers when they arrived at Chase Field in Arizona. Despite Chase Utley’s absence because of a knee injury, they still stacked the top of the order with Shane Victorino, Plácido Polanco, Jimmy Rollins, and Ryan Howard. Cliff Lee was the ace du jour for the series opener against the Diamondbacks.
Kennedy assured Arizona manager Kirk Gibson that he would be ready to pitch. Never mind that he became a father the day before and got only a few hours of sleep on what he described as “the hardest hospital bed ever.” He figured he wouldn’t be any more tired than his teammates, who were returning from an East Coast trip in which they lost four games in a row.
“We had my daughter on Easter Sunday, 2:04 in the morning, and Gibby calls me and he’s like, ‘Hey, can you start tomorrow?’” Kennedy said. “I’m like, ‘Yeah, I’m fine.’ I was already there [in Arizona].”
After Polanco hit the seventh pitch of the game for a double, Kennedy struck out Rollins and Howard. The Phillies got only two more hits, both singles. They didn’t get a runner to third base. Kennedy mixed a low-90s fastball with his curveball, changeup, and slider. He struck out Shane Victorino on a disappearing curveball in the third inning and cranked up his heater to 91 mph in the seventh to fan Raul Ibanez, one of 10 strikeouts.
The Diamondbacks gave Kennedy a lead on Chris Young’s two-run homer off Lee in the third inning. Gerardo Parra went deep in the fifth, and Xavier Nady notched a two-out RBI single against Lee in the sixth to make it 4-0 and cap the scoring.
“As the game’s going on, when you’re in that type of zone -- more of a trance, I should say -- it started to become more of that adrenaline rush,” Kennedy recalled. “They were one of the best teams in the National League. I remember just being really emotional. I just saw my first child be born, and going through all that, it was really, really emotional.”
The last out?
“Struck out Jimmy Rollins,” Kennedy said, “with a curveball.”
Kennedy collected a few mementos, including the ball that he threw past Rollins and the lineup card. It all seemed too good to be true. He still shakes his head while noting that his daughter, Nora Rose, was born at 2:04 a.m. and the game was played in 2 hours, 4 minutes.
“I don’t think I’ve played a game that quick since,” he said.
Kennedy went on to go 21-4 with a 2.88 ERA in 33 starts in 2011. He came in fourth in a crowded field for the Cy Young Award, finishing behind Clayton Kershaw, Roy Halladay, and Lee. He also started Games 1 and 5 of the Diamondbacks’ division series loss to the Milwaukee Brewers. He hasn’t been back to the playoffs.
Penning a new chapter
Life is much different now. Kennedy and his wife, Allison, have six children, prompting Phillies manager Joe Girardi to joke recently about the size of the family pickup truck.
“He’s got a lot of car seats,” Girardi said. “He has more cabs in the truck than most people do.”
The Royals changed Kennedy’s role three years ago in an attempt to keep him healthy and optimize his performance. After initially resisting, he took to the bullpen and especially to closing. He sought advice from several friends, including former Royals relievers Wade Davis, Greg Holland, and Luke Hochevar, and realized the opportunity to reinvent himself.
In 2019, Kennedy closed out 30 of the Royals’ 59 wins and joined Dennis Eckersley, Derek Lowe, and John Smoltz in the 20-win/30-save club. His average fastball velocity rose from 91.9 mph in his last two seasons as a starter to 94.1 mph.
This year, the Rangers encouraged Kennedy to throw even more fastballs. He unleashed his heater 82.1% of the time entering this weekend’s series against the Cincinnati Reds. Only four major-league relievers were throwing the fastball more often.
“In Texas, they were really good at breaking things down,” he said. “I just asked, ‘What do I do well? Can you help me with what I do well, so I can continue doing that? And how can I do better?’ I felt really good with my fastball. I can place it wherever I want, for the most part.
“I pitched 10 years in the big leagues [as a starter], and it was like, ‘All right, let’s see if I can do this.’ I thought, health-wise, this was going to be better, and it was. Moving to the bullpen really helped my body, really helped me feel like I was young again.”
Kennedy is the oldest player in the Phillies clubhouse, a fact that he likes to point out to Girardi. He was among the youngest when he played for Girardi with the Yankees in 2008-09. In some ways, then, he feels as if the trade brought his career full circle.
But Kennedy, a free agent after the season, is also hoping this time with the Phillies provides a companion to his signature moment on the mound.
“I remember how close that team was,” he said of the 2011 Diamondbacks. “It was a lot of fun. Every memory that I have is from that year. Ten years later, I’m still chasing that feeling. Being traded here, it would be pretty cool to do it again.”