A couple of hours before Kyle Kendrick provided the Phillies with the kind of performance that is becoming standard for the underrated and underappreciated 28-year-old righthander, relief pitcher Chad Durbin recalled the running joke that used to be told about his teammate.
"He's got two pitches: a sinker and a sinker," Durbin said. "It was half joke, but the reality was that his sinker was good enough that he could come up and get big-leaguers out with one pitch. He had some secondary pitches, but he didn't really need to go to them."
One-trick ponies not named Mariano Rivera do not last long in the big leagues, and Kendrick didn't, either. After posting a 5.49 ERA in 2008, he spent most of the 2009 season at triple-A Lehigh Valley, where he had the good fortune of learning a split-finger change-up grip from IronPigs teammate Justin Lehr, who had learned the pitch from Tim Hudson when the two were teammates in Oakland.
That was one of the first events that led to Kendrick's evolution as a pitcher, an ongoing journey that still seems to be going unnoticed by many of the paying customers at Citizens Bank Park. As Durbin's "sinker joke" was relayed to him Friday, Kendrick was able to finish the punch line.
"That was the truth," said Kendrick, who will make his seventh start Tuesday night against the San Francisco Giants. "I came up, and I had one good pitch, and that was it. I didn't have anything to change speeds. I threw a sinker and a slider or some sort of slurve thing, and everything was hard. I had to develop."
Anxiety of influence
The next performance-enhancer to change Kendrick's career came in December 2009, when the Phillies acquired Roy Halladay from the Toronto Blue Jays. Kendrick said he listened and learned from the ageless Jamie Moyer during his first three seasons in the big leagues. He also said pitching coach Rich Dubee has been an outstanding influence, even though they sometimes butted heads in the past.
Halladay, however, was a superstar righthander with a similar build and a background that also included a minor-league demotion early in his career.
"As a teammate and a friend, Roy has had the biggest impact on my career," Kendrick said during a lengthy interview Friday afternoon inside the Phillies dugout. "I feel like there is a respect thing there. I feel like he has a respect for me, and I have a world of respect for him.
"No one can see the stuff behind the scenes that I get to see, but I've learned to respect how he goes about his business."
The feeling is just becoming mutual. Halladay, who turns 36 in one week and landed on the disabled list with a shoulder injury Monday, has a true affection for Kendrick. Halladay, however, has not always seen a coherent strategy in Kendrick's approach.
"I think his work ethic and his approach to pitching have changed," Halladay said. "When I first came over, I think there were times he was insecure and he didn't have a plan, not only how to navigate through the game but how to prepare before the game.
"Physically, he didn't have a plan. He just came in and didn't really have an idea of what he was doing or why he was doing it. To me, I think that's the biggest change I've seen. He has an idea now of what he has to do to be successful pitching and what should be his style of pitching."
It wasn't until this past offseason that Halladay saw an entire change in Kendrick's routine.
"I saw the biggest change this winter," Halladay said. "He really came in with a plan and knowing what he was doing. If you know Kyle, that's not Kyle. He used to wait for somebody to tell him what to do, and this winter he really took everything by the horns."
Biting words that Kendrick had no qualms about hearing because of the messenger.
"No, he's right," Kendrick said. "I know exactly what he's getting at. When I would come in for my winter workouts, I was there to get better, and I was there to get my workouts in. But I wasn't always sure what kind of workout I wanted to do or what the plan was. This winter, I had more of a routine. I knew every day what I was going to do."
Change did him good
The workout transformation has carried over to the mound. It started last year when Kendrick finally became a full-time member of the starting rotation in early August. In 12 starts, he went 7-4 with a 3.20 ERA. In his final 10 starts, he was 7-3 with a 2.43 ERA. In 13 of his last 16 outings, Kendrick has pitched at least six innings and allowed two runs or fewer.
Durbin, like most observers, believes that Kendrick's change-up is the difference maker.
"All I'd hear from guys on other teams and when I was with the Braves last year was that the change-up made him so much better," Durbin said. "The hitters had to honor the fact that his fastball is good and you almost had to cheat to get to his sinker and then it's a change-up instead, and you'd see a ground out or a swing and a miss.
"Early on in his career he didn't miss many bats. He got ground ball, ground ball, ground ball. But now you see those swings and misses, and a lot of times that can play into the hitters' heads."
Kendrick is in agreement that the change-up has changed his career path, and the message is not just coming from hitters at the plate. Last season he had a meeting with Atlanta's Freddie Freeman at first base.
"Quit throwing me that change-up," Freeman told Kendrick. "I'm looking for it, and I still can't hit it."
Kendrick said he started truly feeling comfortable and confident throwing his change-up during the second half of last season.
"It comes out like my sinker, and it moves like my sinker," Kendrick said. "But it's seven or eight miles slower."
That's huge, according to Durbin.
"He's not just moving the ball left and right," Durbin said. "He's moving it forward and backward, up and down, left and right."
Looking for love in Philly
Those close to him, like Halladay, are enjoying the show.
"Yeah, it's really fun, especially as much as the fans love to boo him," Halladay said.
It was clear that Halladay would like to see Kendrick become more popular.
"I think the thing that probably bothered him the most was you know you have guys like Cliff [Lee] and myself, and we didn't come up here, and we'll pitch terrible, and people clap," Halladay said. "He just never got that benefit. I think that maybe got to him a little bit, but I don't think the fact that people booed him bothered him."
Kendrick, who can become a free agent after next season, admitted that he'd love to receive the same kind of unconditional love as Lee and Halladay, but that has not stopped him from loving Philadelphia.
"I met my wife [Stephanie] here," Kendrick said. "My daughter [Sophia] was born here, and my son is going to be born here. I grew up in this organization. I don't know if the fans expected something bigger after my rookie year. The league adjusted, and I didn't. I had one pitch, and the league caught on to that, and I had a rough couple years. But this is the only team I've known, so I'd like to stay here my entire career."