LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. - Kyle Kendrick gets it. You only get to be a pleasant surprise once. After that, you have to get good and stay good, or pretty soon you're just a pleasant memory.
It isn't much of an exaggeration to say that Kendrick saved the Phillies last season. They were on the brink of another calamitous midseason pitching shortage. Freddy Garcia and Jon Lieber, about $17 million worth of starters, broke down. Adam Eaton had been less than expected, to be charitable.
In previous years, the Phillies would dredge up a Paul Abbott or Eude Brito to fill out the rotation, and the results were disastrous. There wasn't reason to expect much more when they called up Kendrick from double-A Reading in June. These were the Phillies, after all. They never seemed to get that guy, the unheralded kid who comes up big when it's needed most.
What they got from Kendrick - 20 solid, professional starts and a 10-4 record - kept the Phillies close enough to the New York Mets to make their late-season run at the division title. Kendrick finished strong, winning his last three regular-season starts and creating a spot for himself in the 2008 rotation.
There is a huge difference between coming out of nowhere, surprising even yourself, and having a career. Kendrick's rookie season drew a lot of comparisons to Marty Bystrom, who went 5-0 as a 21-year-old rookie to help the 1980 Phillies to the franchise's only championship. But Bystrom won just 24 major-league games, losing 26, after that.
From pleasant surprise to pleasant memory.
Kendrick knows he can't expect this year to be as easy as he made last year look. Hitters have seen him. They will adjust. The Atlanta Braves demonstrated that yesterday. In his second spring start, Kendrick gave up seven runs and nine hits in just 22/3 innings.
His performance wasn't nearly as bad as the box score line. Kendrick is a sinker-ball pitcher, so it's a good sign when he's getting ground balls. Five of those Braves hits were grounders that were inches from being outs. Two Phillies errors contributed to Kendrick's troubles.
"Some of the ground balls were finding holes," Kendrick said. "That's nothing to sweat about. I'm a command pitcher. I didn't have great command."
What he does have is a strategy for countering the adjustments he expects from hitters. Kendrick is trying to add a change-up to his repertoire, something to use when hitters are waiting on that sinker.
"I want my change-up to be better, and I think it's going to be," Kendrick said. "I didn't throw it enough. I probably threw six. I probably should have thrown at least 15 or 20. I threw four really good ones. I've got to throw it."
It's a funny thing. Kendrick has control over what pitch he decides to throw. If he wants to throw more change-ups, then why not just throw them? That's easier to say than it is to do, however, when Mark Teixeira or Jeff Francoeur is standing 60 feet, 6 inches away.
"He wants results," pitching coach Rich Dubee said. "He's always gotten results with his sinker. But to take his game to the next level, he's going to have to develop his secondary pitches and become consistent. He throws good [change-ups] in the bullpen. It's a matter of getting good results and becoming confident in it."
This is all new for Kendrick. He wasn't even in the Phillies' major-league camp last year. Then he went from riding buses and facing double-A hitters to winning games in a pennant race without getting a lot of time to think about it.
Maybe that was a good thing. By the time Kendrick had a chance to catch his breath and take in the enormity of the challenge he'd faced, it was over. His line in the Baseball Encyclopedia has a 10 in the win column.
"Last year, I had to pitch right away and have success right away," Kendrick said. "Now hitters have seen me. They know what I have."
His ability to outsmart hitters will have as big an impact on this season as Kendrick had last season. The Phillies' rotation looks good at the top with Brett Myers and Cole Hamels. Jamie Moyer is back, with age-appropriate concerns. After that, you get to Eaton and Kris Benson and J.D. Durbin. Carlos Carrasco is destined for triple A, unless he changes the Phillies' minds.
There are expectations now, for the Phillies as well as for Kendrick. If the Phillies are going to build on last year's success, in what looks like a very competitive division, they can't be scrounging around in June for a pitcher to plug a hole in their rotation.
The odds are against finding another surprise as pleasant as Kendrick.